Polly K. Carl, Ph.D.
There are many eye-catching signs and posters on the wall in PWC.
|*12 “The Interview’, by Rosanna Staffa, was translated into Japanese and presented to the public as staged-reading performances, directed by Masataka Matsuda at Kawasaki Art Center in February 2008.
|“Staged-reading” has become a popular form of theatrical presentation in Japan. Please talk about the significance of staged-reading and its distinction from full productions.
The most important part of the staged-reading is that we don’t have actors taking the time to get off book. What happens in rehearsal and in production is that memorization becomes one of the key parts of the development and for us, we don’t care about that. We don’t want to take the time. We want to make the script the best it can be. We also want to figure out – do we need some sound elements, what are the things that we need to know how the script can have an impact. If you spend time either memorizing or doing cues, just sitting and tech-ing cues can take four days, so, for us, the staged readings is a way that taking something as far along as we can without the excess that production requires. It’s stripping away to the basics and that becomes what’s most important for our work at the PWC.
So, you see it as one stage of the script development process?
That’s right. If you think about it as a Research and Development, in pharmaceuticals, for example, we don’t think about what the packaging is going to look like, or how we’re going to market it. All we want to think about is how to make somebody feel better. It’s a metaphor in research in medication, but it is the same kind of thing.
Do you think that a staged-reading can be for general audience? It’s getting to be quite popular in Japan and people like to attend readings of both new and classic works. Is it the same in the U.S.?
I think that American theater has not sold the staged reading to its audiences. That said, in my experience of 10 years at PWC is that audiences love staged readings. One of the reasons that they love them is that what staged readings allow for is the full investment of our personal imaginations. When you don’t have the costume, when you don’t have the set, you have to sit and imagine the world of this play, and I think that the audience finds that very compelling. I think that the staged readings are very popular when people have the experience of them. People love them here. They come, we get full houses, but I don’t think that the theater in general, big producers have not recognized how audiences want to be part of that.
I heard that there are some playwrights who actually write for the staged reading, and not so much for the full production. Is this true and if so, is it problematic at all?
I think it’s true for American writers, because it’s so hard to get new plays produced here. It’s not like in Japan where you write it and direct it and produce it yourself. You write it, and you wait and wait and wait for someone else to produce it. Also, American theaters don’t take a lot of risk on new plays. What they do take risks on are workshops and staged readings because they’re much less costly, so that a lot of writers would say, I know that some theaters won’t read this and just produce it, I know a theater will read the script and say, “Let’s do a workshop or a staged reading”. I think that writers get used to that as a way in which their works are going to be seen, so it makes a lot of sense that they write that in mind.
Please talk about the organizational structure.
We have eight full time staff and four part-time staff. I’m the producing artistic director, which is the artistic and administrative head. I used to do all the budgets, contracts, and all those things when we were smaller, but now that the organization has grown, more of my energy can be focused on the art, which I enjoy the most. We now have a managing director who takes care of the financial end of things, and though I still oversee the whole organization and he and I work closely together, I trust a lot of day-to-day operation issues to him. We also have a technology communication person, we have a membership person who works with the group of 800 members, and we also have Michael Dixon, who’s a theater director and dramaturge and oversees the running of the laboratory, I have an assistant, so, it’s a mix of personnel, but we’re a very lean organization for what we do.
Also, we hire probably two to three hundred actors a year, another forty or fifty directors, about twenty dramaturges, ten or twenty designers, so, we are a major cultural employer in Minnesota. The budget, which is growing, is about US$1.1 million and about $450,000 goes directly to the artists. One of our jobs, separate from what gets created, is keep artists working, alive and fed. The federal government is not so interested in that, so, it’s more foundation funds, and the bulk of our support comes from the foundations, and our goal is to use that money to support the life and health of the artists.
PWC has a National Advisory Board besides a regular Board of Directors which consists of many playwrights. How does it function?
The National Advisory Board is comprised of the top theater artists in the country. They primarily work to advise me. I call them about particular issues. They do more of a singular thing when we ask them. The Advisory Board members function as the ambassadors of the organization in terms of speaking highly about what we do.
Please tell us a little about you. What was your major and how did you become the head of PWC?
I have a PhD in program called comparatives studies in discourse and society, which is a cultural studies and comparative literature degree and my expertise is on textual analysis learning how to contextualize art --understand where artistic narratives fall in time and history and I have a dissertation that’s primarily about performance theory. So, my intention was to be an academic. Then, when I “stumbled upon” the Playwrights Center, I realized that this was one of the few places where my degree was actually quite worthwhile. I spend a lot of time doing dramaturgical work on plays with writers and really love to talk about the text and talk about their work and to think about how their work functions both structurally and thematically (This is part of what I do now on a regular basis. I don’t have a traditional theater back ground in that way, but that’s how I got here. I took a hiatus before going on to the job market to become an academic and did some grant writing here at the PWC and that was 1998, and I never left.
In regards to the academic world, do you still teach at University?
I don’t teach much anymore because of my schedule, but I did teach cultural studies at the University of Minnesota and other places for about 10 years.
Have you worked for any other organizations?
No. However, in the 1980s, I did spend some time in political activism, including anti-nuclear protests but started my PhD in 1991, and have been in either the academic world or the theater world since then. I’ve always been divided in half between wanting to be a full time political activist and wanting to be an artist. Finally for me, as much as I love political activism, the artistic soul won out. I have a Master’s Degree in Peace Studies, and most of my colleagues were all doing international relations and conflict resolutions and I was doing the things around Brecht and Hemmingway, always the artistic side of social justice issues. I find that I’m fortunate, of course, that contemporary American plays are often very political. Artists use their plays as a vehicle to talk about politics, so, I now find that a lot of my activism is promoting and getting behind these very political plays.
The play we brought to Japan under the Exchange Project, “The Interview” (*12) is a very good example of what you just said. The play is about an American journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq. It was directed by Masataka Matsuda for a staged reading presentation in Japan in February 2008.
Yes, I agree. Thank God for Art. We’re not all going to be able to go to Iraq and protest about the war. “The Interview” is a very tight, and a very quick and very emotionally driven play, and there’s a moment in the play that we just recognize so briefly our connection to one another. That, of course, is what the international translation does. It allows us to see the way in which we’re totally different that we have so little in common – our language is different, our way of thinking is different, our perceptions are different, and yet, we have to believe in some basic ways in which we connect. There’s a moment in that play where the Iraqi doctor and the American journalist understand that personal sense of “we share something”. We have to find that. The only way that the U.S. is ever going to get out of Iraq, and the only way that we’re going to live in more peaceful world is if we understand that. We have to find that overlap.
I think that in our translation work we do that. You and I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out, where do we overlap? How do we communicate? How do we make sense of it? But as we know, it takes so much time. American politicians don’t want to take that kind of time, and I think that the artists are all about taking that kind of time. I think that it’s such a beautiful way to work.
And the Playwrights Center is here to support that.
That’s right. It’s one of the most important things we do: to give time to the artists for creation.