In anticipation of Sunday’s First Contact Showcase, I asked Kelsey Mesa a few questions about the director’s process with new play development. Kelsey is the producer of this First Contact series, and has been instrumental in formatting our exciting (and experimental) new salon format, which brings a visual “gallery walk,” interactive games, and engaging discussion to our family of playgoers. She is an Inkwell leader, and has directed showcase readings of Periwinkle Walls by Robert Montenegro, The Impracticalities of Modern Day Mastodons by Rachel Teagle, and Apocalypse, Please by NicoleViñas. Kelsey is an amazing collaborator, and has also worked with Nicole during her Wellspring workshop of The Break Room.
What has been your favorite experience working on a new/developing play? Why? What made it amazing?
In The Impracticalities of Modern Day Mastodons, the main character Jess is a mastodon. Anne asked me to lead the cast in movement exercises to help Rachel figure out the possibilities (and realities) of having a mastodon onstage. We did some Viewpoints-based things–to be honest, I was completely out of my comfort zone–but everyone in the room trusted in each other and worked together to create a mastodon out of five actors. We then put that five-actor mastodon into some improv scenes, which revealed a lot about the characters’ relationships and the world of the play; Rachel was able to incorporate a lot of what she learned into her next draft. The most amazing moment came the next day, during the presentation. The actors filed outside…and came back into the room as the mastodon. They were so in sync, they even breathed together. Who knew you could create that within the bounds of a staged reading?
What is your favorite thing about working with a developing play?
My favorite thing is having the playwright in the room, and seeing them frantically scribble notes because they’ve seen or heard something new or been freshly inspired.
How do you approach a development process, knowing that the script might (and probably will) change before the showcase?
Most of my approach involves reading and re-reading, and taking a lot of notes on what questions I have or what strikes me. Then, I listen to what the playwright has to say and read the play again, with that in mind. I want to know the world of the play, what connections there are within the play, what its major themes are…things change, but generally what’s important to the play and the playwright does not—and those important things are what I focus on.
How would you describe The Inkwell’s process, from a director’s perspective?
The Inkwell uses dramaturgical discussion and an excerpt of a play to explore the large questions a playwright has about the play they’ve written. If all goes well, the playwright sees his or her play with fresh eyes.
How would you describe the relationship between a director and dramaturg during an Inkwell process?
I’ve worked with some marvelous dramaturgs through the Inkwell. Because the dramaturg leads the discussion, I can focus on listening. At first, it was really hard for me not to talk…as a director, I assume I should take the lead. It’s a huge luxury to sit back and listen and take that time to figure out how I can best serve this play. I also touch base with the dramaturg to figure out where the playwright is at each point—what they need from me and the actors, what they need to see, how they’re feeling. I rely on the dramaturg for their insight and perspective, to guide our next steps.
What do you think our readers should know about the director’s process–specifically with The Inkwell–while working on a developing play?
Every play is different, every playwright is different…to every process is different. As a director, the best thing I can do is serve this specific play at this specific moment and give it what it needs. I want to help answer the questions the playwright has about his or her work.