Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tanya Shaffer - A Reading in the New Play Incubator

Tanya Shaffer Re-imagines the Story of Buddha

Sid Arthur by Tanya Shaffer
Directed by Amy Mueller
Monday, February 18th
Exit Theatre
277 Taylor Street
San Francisco
By Invitation Only (see below)

If you are a Theatre Professional or a Playwrights Foundation Donor and would like an invitation to see Sid Arthur, please email us at jonathan (at) playwrightsfoundation (dot) org.

This week’s Spotlight on the Playwright takes a look at Tanya Shaffer and Sid Arthur, the new musical growing in PF’s New Play Incubator.  Inspired by the life of Siddhartha Gautama, Sid Arthur was submitted to last year’s In the Rough Reading Series.  Tanya has since been developing the project, which will culminate in a by-invitation-only performance, directed by Amy Mueller, Playwrights Foundation's Artistic Director, next Monday, February 18th.

Tanya shared with us some of her thoughts on her latest piece and her experience developing it in the New Play Incubator.  Please enjoy her insights and inspirations:

PF:  Some of your previous work, such as Let My Enemy Live Long and Brigadista, has been based on your experiences traveling.  Where did the raw material for Sid Arthur come from?

TS:  The idea for a musical inspired by the Buddha’s life came to me nine years ago on a meditation retreat.  It struck me initially that the scene of the Buddha’s enlightenment, in which he seats himself under a tree for seven days and nights while all the world’s temptations swirl around attempting to derail him, would make a compelling song and dance. I imagined the shadow of the seated Buddha cast upon a scrim behind the dancers, growing larger as the minutes passed, until it towered above them like a mountain: colossal, resolute, and serene.  Furthermore, the story of the pampered prince who, at his first glimpse of human suffering, renounces worldly life to pursue a spiritual path, struck me as timeless and inherently dramatic.  I grew up on musicals, and from the start, I felt that the epic quality of the tale lent itself to that form.

For several years, the idea languished on a back burner, waiting to gel.  I knew a traditional historical epic wasn’t for me; I had to find my own way in.

Over time, one element of the Buddha’s life nagged at me: in forsaking the material world, he also abandoned his wife and baby.  This brought up questions. Does the end result-the discovery of a world-renowned spiritual practice-justify deserting one’s child? How would an “enlightened” being respond if confronted by that child, grown to adulthood?  Would the world view things differently if the Buddha were a woman?  I imagined the child, a daughter, discovering, as a young adult, that her absent mom is a universally revered guru. What kind of feelings might that evoke in her?

Changing the gender of the central characters and transposing the setting from ancient India to a pumped-up version of contemporary America made the story feel fresh, accessible, and relevant.  Along with the updated setting, I envisioned a contemporary score, which would maintain the lyricism and drama of a traditional musical while sounding very much “of today.”   I’m thrilled to be collaborating with the magnificent Vienna Teng, whose inspired compositions are helping, at last, to transform my budding idea into a full-blown reality.

PF: You've met with substantial success so far in your career, winning numerous awards and critics selections.  At this stage in your career, what about the PF's New Play Incubator appeals to you?

TS: Every playwright, no matter where she is in her career, needs a forum in which to develop new work.  Theatre is an interactive form ­ you can’t just write it on a page and know how it’s going to work.  You need to put something up in front of an audience, with actors, to get a true sense of it.  Playwrights Foundation offers an invaluable service to playwrights by making that possible at various stages of development.


PF: What is different about developing Sid Arthur in PF's New Play Incubator than the development process of your previous work?

TS: Since the reading is by invitation only, rather than a fully public, widely publicized event, it allows me more freedom to get in there and work with the piece at whatever stage it’s at.  I don¹t feel the pressure to get it into some sort of “finished” shape before showing it.  Also, I know I’ll be working with an ace team of director/actors/music director who really understand the development process and will give me great feedback.  Since Amy Mueller is so experienced at developing new work, she is particularly sensitive to what is and is not necessary for a developmental reading, and I know she’ll put her attention in the right place, which is script development, rather than spending precious time on things like elaborate staging, which belong more in a production than a developmental reading. Also, since Amy and I have worked together over many years, there’s a level of trust and comfort that allow for deep exploration and open communication.


PF: What do you hope to get out of this development process, both for Sid Arthur and yourself as a writer?

TS: I hope that Vienna Teng (the composer) and I will get a better understanding of how well what we¹ve done so far is working, and a clear picture of the work we need to do to take the musical to the next level: from a work-in-progress to a finished product.  I hope to find my way more deeply into the story and the characters and to clarify each character’s journey in order to create a magical, satisfying, and thought-provoking evening of theatre.  For myself as a writer, the goal is always the same:  grow, grow, grow!

PF: What is the next step for you and Sid Arthur, once you've completed your Incubator with Playwrights Foundation?

TS: The next step will be either another reading or a fuller workshop production in the coming year. We are looking at various options, but nothing’s in place yet.  Since Vienna’s only recently come on board, we anticipate a couple more steps along the road to production.  Stay tuned!