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There's a method to their 'Madness'

Oct. 2, 2006
By Mary Reed

It's Friday at 10 p.m. in Ohio University's sparse Hahne Theater. Joseph Gallo stands on the edge of the stage, hands on hips, looking off into the distance. He unconsciously lets out a deep sigh. About 20 feet away, Nick Sgouros is the only occupant in the 75-seat hall. He, too, wears that distant gaze. Actors are milling about, scripts in hand, chatting, stretching, smoking. In less than an hour, the doors will open and madness will ensue. Literally. 

photos by Loren HolmesFlash back to Monday afternoon. Gallo and Sgouros, along with their fellow MFA playwriting student Merri Biechler, are meeting at the Front Room campus coffeehouse. They've just received their "Madness" for the week: Sun Madness. They now have until Friday afternoon to each write a complete, three- to five-minute play around that theme. Their plays will be produced Friday night. 

Any ideas yet?

Biechler: "I have an image."
Gallo: "Not sure. Two possibilities."
Sgouros: "None."

While to most of us the prospect of writing and producing a play every week might be daunting, it's exactly the opportunity these playwrights are looking for. 

"Honestly, Madness is one of the reasons I wanted to come here -- especially because writing is such a solitary thing," Gallo says. After working in New York theater, and even having his play "My Italy Story" produced off-Broadway, he chose Ohio University over Columbia or New York University. "This is the best program in the country for this."

All agree that, as an exercise, Madness is invaluable. Each week, the students receive an assignment from one of their fellow students -- a theme, a concept or a style. There's been Circus Madness, Train Madness, plays with no dialogue and so on. 

The creative energy between the three is almost palpable and while they talk, Sgouros writes in his notebook. Perhaps his first idea. Later, he will tell me about his many false starts this week. None of them seem nervous. I'm nervous for them. But they assure me that there's no worry about failure. "It's where we go to fail," says Sgouros.

Photos by Loren Holmes"You can talk theory until you're blue in the face," says Charles Smith, head of the Professional Playwriting Program. "But Madness allows instead for immediate feedback and audience response. They learn pretty quickly what works and what doesn't."

Smith, who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is playwright in residence at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, created "Playwright's Production," as it's called in the course catalog. But everyone knows it as Madness. 

"At the end of the quarter, writers are exhausted -- they beg not to do (Madness)," Smith says. "They end up saying, 'I can put something up that I know will work.' They reach into their bag of tricks. After a year, that bag of tricks is pretty large."

Erik Ramsey, who shares teaching duties with Smith in the MFA playwriting program, is teaching Madness this quarter. He agrees with Smith's sentiment but uses a different word. "It's really about finding your toolbox and using your toolbox," he says. Ramsey lists the three major elements of a play as character, plot and dramatic tension. "The finest play will have all three," he says.

Madnesses have won national short play awards at the American College Theater Festival in 2005 and 2006 and they've been produced at major theaters such as Northlight, Collaboration and the Coyote Arts Festival. And these are plays; they are not scenes. They are not sketches, either. "This isn't Saturday Night Live," Ramsey notes. 

Checking in on Thursday, Biechler is finished with her play. "Early for me," she says. She got her idea from a Monday night dinner with the other playwrights when they started singing songs from The Brady Bunch. Gallo is unreachable. Sgouros is "still wrangling the play out of my head." He searched the library for inspiration for "Midnight Sun" and has come up with an idea riffing off of a Swedish myth about men putting flowers under their pillows and dreaming of their future brides. 

The writers still have to produce their plays by gathering music, props and, especially, actors. "Sometimes it's slim pickins," Biechler tells me Friday night before Madness begins. In some ways, Madness has already begun. Gallo is having technical difficulties with the audio. The system in the theater is down, so they are resorting to a boom box with no track counter. He was hoping to have soaring music to go along with the climax. "We're not gettin' any soaring," he deadpans. 

Photos by Loren HolmesPlus, he's not getting the original climax -- on page 1 1/2 -- that he had written. His piece, "Sundance," called for dancers, but he was not able to secure them from the School of Dance. "None of that happened," he says. "I went to plan B." 

Madness is experimental theater of sorts -- that is, the writers are experimenting with different elements of playwriting. Both Biechler and Gallo have revealed that they are both trying to work with movement on stage this week. Sgouros says "I just let images pile up on top of each other." He knows this is his strong suit, admitting "it's almost become a crutch at this point." He doesn't have to wait until critique Monday to know that he hasn't plotted and elevated his play to a climax, he hasn't raised the stakes.

When the doors open shortly before 11 p.m., the crowd pours in. There are a lot of theater students here, notebooks and pens in hand. There are also Madness regulars, as it's developed somewhat of a cult following. The energy level rises.

The show begins strongly, with fellow student Bill Zorn's piece, "Sunrise." A brother and sister are sitting down over drinks, having a talk. It quickly turns absurd, as we learn they are vampires. By the end of the play, they are comparing the taste of their most recent victim: "Mexican with just a hint of Dutch." The audience loves it.

The play that hits best with the audience is "Solar Eclipse," written by a first-year MFA student Reggie Edmund. Three African-Americans are engaged in a tense scene when, unexpectedly, the white director appears from the audience, yelling "Cut! Cut! Cut! ... give me more blackness." The actors do the scene again, this time with exaggerated urban African-American stereotypes. "Give me more black," the director says. The third iteration pulls out equally exaggerated old Southern black stereotypes. Audience members laugh and feel discomfort at the same time. 

"I got nervous as the night progressed because Reggie's piece went so well," Gallo tells me after the show. Both he and Biechler have to follow it. But they both pretty successfully explore movement in their pieces, which is what they set out to do. Gallo's depicts a scene of two college women walking together across campus on a bitterly cold night. By the end, they're dancing together. Biechler's piece has a mother and daughter not connecting -- both verbally and physically. 

The 40 or so minutes go by like five and everyone seems to have enjoyed the evening -- writers, actors and audience members alike. 

How's everyone feeling now?

Biechler: "Relieved."
Gallo: "Relieved, as always. The noose is off my neck."
Sgouros: "I feel good -- it was a good night; there've been better, there've been worse."

Following critique on Monday, the three meet again at the Front Room. Class time today was mostly spent critiquing Edmund's provocative race piece: what worked, what didn't work, the arc of the story, the subtext and so on. 

This week Gallo gets to choose the theme. It's "Par-tay!" He jokes that everyone had such a good time Friday that they're planning to do it again this week. Any ideas yet?

Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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Published: Oct 2, 2006 10:27:58 AM
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