Sunday, June 05, 2011

Going "Down a Little Dirt Road"

Erin Bregman’s Down a Little Dirt Road has traveled a long way to get to where it is now.

PlayGround commissioned Erin to write Down a Little Dirt Road, or, as it was known at the time, Nightmare Play, as part of her winning the 2009 June Anne Baker Prize. Meanwhile, it took on another life as a short play for the 2009 December Monday Night PlayGround, based on the topic, “Chthonic.” That play, 7 Nightmares, was chosen to be performed in the year-end Best of Playground Festival. Simultaneously, as part of winning the June Anne Baker Prize, Nightmare Play got a staged reading during the Best of PlayGround Festival. “It was the first case in which both a short play and a full-length with the same characters were simultaneously in the festival,” says PlayGround Artistic Director, Jim Kleinmann.

Around the same time, Jonathan Spector (another PlayGround writer) and Molly Aaronson-Gelb, Co-Artistic Directors of Just Theater, who were familiar with Erin’s play, applied for PlayGround’s New Play Production Fund to produce it. In January 2010, Nightmare Play won the New Play Production Fund, and thus continued the journey that led to many incarnations, a new title, and finally, the world premiere of Down a Little Dirt Road on June 9 at Just Theater at the Berkeley City Club.

The cast includes two PlayGround Company Members, Anthony Nemirovsky and Lisa Morse, and one of this year’s winners of PlayGround’s Young Playwrights Project, Alona Bach, who had a staged reading of her play, Act After Curtain, on May 19 as part of this year’s Best of PlayGround Festival. Molly Aaronson-Gelb, one of the play’s earliest supporters, directs. Down a Little Dirt Road plays from June 9-July 3. June 9 is PlayGround Night, which includes discounted tickets for PlayGrounders.

Below is my interview with Erin, in which she discusses the original idea that became Down a Little Dirt Road, and all the transformations it has taken since then.

Could you trace the development of Down a Little Dirt Road?

The very first germ for the play actually came from a monologue I wrote in early 2007. I submitted it to PlayGround as part of a collection of monologues I was pretending could be a 10-minute play, and was not accepted into the [PlayGround Writers] Pool. The next year I wrote a real ten minute play, got in, and at the end of that year I came across that monologue again when I was searching my computer files for old ideas I might use for my June Anne Baker commission proposal. I literally cut and pasted it into the proposal with, “I think this might be the start of an idea,” and that's the one Jim [Kleinmann] ended up liking the best. So I started the first draft of the play about a year and a half ago, and now here we are!

What inspired Down a Little Dirt Road?

Really that first old monologue, which had one idea I ran with: a father and daughter start sharing the same nightmares, and he stays awake so she can sleep in peace. It's pretty far from that starting point now, but that was the original inspiration for the piece.

What was the writing process like for it?

It happened in spurts. I wrote the first draft pretty leisurely, with tons of help from Mina Morita who directed the first reading of it last year [at the 2010 Best of PlayGround Festival]. I made a lot of changes before the reading, and then totally re-wrote the play from beginning to end, I think, two or three times after that. Maybe four times. It's gone through a lot of different shapes and phases, and really only in the last two months did it find its final form. So there have been great spurts of re-writes, but also a few times when I didn't look at the play at all for months at a time. I think the time away was just as helpful as the time I spent working.

What has the process been like for this production with Just Theater? Have you made any changes?

Tons of changes! I think I have 20+ versions of the play saved on my computer as of today. It's been a fantastically rigorous process, including a 7 hour dramaturgical marathon with the genius Jonathan Spector. It's been a true collaboration in every way, with Jonathan, Molly, and the actors all having a great influence on the final re-writes. I turned in my last changes six days ago I think, so that's kept things interesting to the end.
How involved have you been with the production? Did you sit in on the casting? Design meetings?

Very involved, as much as my other work schedule has allowed. I have been there for all casting/audition days, almost all the design meetings, and the majority of rehearsals. Like all theater, everyone chips in for everything, so I've helped out with set construction and mailings as well. I wish I could have come to absolutely everything, but sometimes that just hasn't been possible.

How did the co-production with Just Theater come about? Had you worked with director Molly Aaronson-Gelb before?

The co-production was actually a huge leap of faith for Just Theater. I've known Jonathan and Molly pretty much since I moved to San Francisco (fortunately for me), and they actually committed to producing this play before it was written. As soon as PlayGround announced their production grants, Jonathan gave me a call and said they were thinking of applying for it since they saw my play was eligible, and did I have any pages to send yet. I think I might have sent him the first 15 pages or so at the most, and based on that they decided to apply for the grant, and got it, so they were committed to the piece long before it actually existed, which is remarkably brave I think.
I had worked with Molly before, on a couple of different pieces--one In the Rough reading through the Playwrights Foundation in 2008 I think, and we created a one-act piece together for FuryFactory the year after that.

What has the production revealed to you about the play that you did not know before?

Well, it's a much sadder play than I anticipated. I originally meant it to be a scary play, and it's definitely more sad than scary, but there are still a few hopefully creepy bits left. I guess I won't really know more about it until we get an audience in front of it, so I'll have to let you know in more detail later.

Does it make you nervous, having your play in someone else’s hands?

Yes and no. It makes me very nervous to have so many people dedicate so much time and energy into something that's essentially mine--that's a lot of pressure to make sure it's worth all the work they're putting into it. On the other hand, I totally trust every one of my collaborators, so I'm not nervous at all about how the play is being handled. It's in good hands.

What do you hope people will take away from the play?

Everyone brings something different into the theater, so I am sure everyone will take something different away, which is one of the many things I love about the arts. I would hate to dictate what that is, but if they are still thinking about the show when they get home, I will be happy. Our intrepid set designer Jon Fischer has actually made a small surprise for everyone to take with them, so at the very least they will leave with that and a program.

What is your next project?

I just finished a first draft of a play for high school students, so probably beginning the re-writing on that. I really can't say beyond that, as this project has pretty thoroughly taken over my brain and rendered me incapable of planning for the distant future.

What do you do when you’re not writing, for fun and for money?

For fun, most anything involving the outdoors, good food, or traveling. For money, I work as a teaching artist for the San Francisco Opera. It's pretty much the best job ever.

June 9 is PlayGround Night! Be part of the first audience to see the world premiere of Down a Little Dirt Road, and get discount tickets to do it.