by Bailey Green
I sat down with Andrea Romaldi, Literary Manager at the Tarragon, to discuss the 2014 Playwrights Unit. This piece is the first of an ongoing series of profiles on the members of the Unit. A playwright profile will be launched each month leading up to the play reading week at the Tarragon in November.
The Tarragon Playwrights Unit 2014 announcement arrived in my email inbox earlier this year. The playwrights? Rachel Blair, Alexandria Haber, Jessica Moss, Kat Sandler and Evan Webber. These five talented individuals will spend a year working on one of their own projects in collaboration with dramaturg Andrea Romaldi. But what exactly is this unit and how does it function? I contacted Andrea Romaldi to learn more about the process. All five playwrights generously agreed to participate in this series of features. I hope other writers or artists will find connection in these pieces. The writer’s profession is a solitary one. But the Playwrights Unit, just like In the Greenroom, encourages community.
The Unit has been in existence since 1982. The last four units have been primarily under the dramaturgical care of Andrea Romaldi. Artistic Director Richard Rose passed the reins a few years ago as demands of Tarragon’s season became more insistent. Rose returns to the process in November to direct the play reading week. Andrea Romaldi began working at Tarragon in October 2007 after completing internships with Maureen Labonté at Shaw Festival and Brian Quirt of Nightswimming. Romaldi was part of the inaugural Festival of Ideas and Creation at CanStage and worked with the Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival for a several years. And her joe job? Teaching as an artist in schools and working at the ROM’s summer camps.
The Unit meets in January, May and September with a day or half day dedicated to each play. The playwrights attend each meeting and give feedback to each other on their work. After the meetings, the writers return to their drafts until the next meeting. “Writing is a very lonely profession and so when people have the opportunity to work with others, they don’t take it lightly,” Romaldi says of the dedication of playwrights to the unit.
In between Unit meetings, writers have the opportunity to meet with Romaldi who dramaturges their work. She offers feedback, suggests new avenues to explore or requests revisions. Romaldi adapts to each writer’s process, “some people take me up on meetings, some don’t. Part of that is how people create. Some glean what they need from the readings or discussion and some people require constant checking in to feel supported. Everyone’s process is unique.” In her many years of experience, Romaldi recognizes the sensitivity required in dealing with artists and the varied challenges each playwright faces. In the past, Romaldi has worked with a variety of challenges such as writing a play in real time or writing a play out of chronological order. Many plays require the challenge of an extensive research process. This can stunt the writer when they come to actually putting words to paper. Breaking out of the comfort zone is also a common challenge, “many playwrights cut their teeth doing a certain kind of play, for example a one person show or an episodic play,” says Romaldi. “When playwrights challenges themselves it will always challenge their process.” Other playwrights struggle with their material and fears of what others might think of them if they create unlikeable characters or tackle difficult subject matter. “Write the play you need to write,” Romaldi encourages.
The selection process is very challenging for Romaldi. She invites six playwrights a year to join the Unit. “People who are brand new to writing want to work at the Tarragon, however they often don’t have enough experience,” Romaldi says of many writers who contact her through the Tarragon website. “I direct them to places or institutions where they can develop their skills.” Romaldi says she often comes across new writers typically at festivals like SummerWorks, Fringe and occasionally Rhubarb (Rhubarb shows are often more performance art/creation based). Romaldi also draws from Tarragon’s RBC Playwriting Competition and the Theatre Creators Reserve. The Unit is open to working with alternative creators however, “the unit has a very specific infrastructure which is geared towards playwright-driven, text-based plays,” Romaldi says. The budget often can’t accommodate paying creators for the extended rehearsal period required with a collective creation or movement-based performance. “We do make offers to people who work in a less conventional way than I think people perceive of Tarragon,” Romaldi says, “they [the creators] just have to be more flexible with their needs.”
When asked what she looks for in selecting the playwrights for the unit Romaldi replied: “At Tarragon we’re looking for plays whose primary focus is exploring the human condition. We’re not looking for plays with a single perspective, an easy hero and an easy villain. Our plays ask people to look at themselves and others with complexity and compassion. No matter how good a character tries to be there’s always something that eats at them. It can cause them to do thing we may not admire, but that we are forced to understand.”
Romaldi also listed several basic qualities: strong dialogue, a clear understanding of drama and above all that scripts are written for the theatre (as opposed to the mediums of film or poetry).
The level of experience varies within the unit. Romaldi looks for playwrights who have put a play through the production process, whether it was at a small indie venue or at the Fringe. The experience of putting original work through rehearsals with actors, meetings with designers and performances with audiences is crucial to growing as a playwright. Romaldi looks for a diverse group in terms of age, skills, and experience, “some people are well beyond the minimum, some have experience in film and television want to return to theatre, some have had experience in cities outside Toronto and so perhaps Tarragon isn’t familiar with their work.” Each playwright comes into the unit at a different stage in their plays’ development. Some plays may have been in the works for years while others may have only gained an ending the night before.
Romaldi’s advice for young writers and emerging artists? “Read and see as many plays as possible.” Be analytical, but generous, and always speak about plays in compassionate terms and “respect the integrity of the creators.” Romaldi notices that writers commonly have a lot of talent but are afraid to claim their confidence. Romaldi searched for the right words to describe what she feels is essential for life as an artist, “I am allowed to be a writer. It doesn’t make me inferior or superior, it just makes me who I am. Building up the idea of the ‘nobility of the artist’ won’t help. Part of what artists are offering people is a piece of themselves. It’s complicated and it’s not easy. But at some point you just have to accept that this is who you are and this is what you are meant to do.”
Be sure to check back over the next few months to follow our Tarragon Playwrights Unit Feature as we meet with each of the playwrights.
Follow our writer Bailey on Twitter: @_BaileyGreen