Student Actors Partner with Pulitzer-Nominated Playwright to Create New Work

By Claire L. Wong

Audiences stepping into the Geary Theater for Wakey, Wakey will also experience the never-before-seen play The Substitution preceding it. Pulitzer Prize–nominated playwright Will Eno wrote this short play specifically for A.C.T.’s MFA Program students. When thinking about the content of The Substitution with Eno, director Anne Kauffman says, “One thing that we were interested in was the woman who appears for a brief moment of time in Wakey, Wakey. She appears at an important place in the piece, and so it felt important that we meet her in a different context. From there, we developed this idea into the first part of the show.”

MFA Program actors in the class of 2020 were in the room with Eno and Kauffman as they rehearsed The Substitution for the first time. “It was incredibly fun and helpful to get together with Anne and Kathryn [Smith-McGlynn] and the MFA students,” says Eno. “It’s a really important part of the playwriting process to hear things alive and in time, so you can make adjustments to rhythm and diction and other aspects of language that might differ from person to person. The process was both incredibly human and also incredibly efficient and I hope the result is a proper mix of tension and ease.” 

Jimmy (Jeff Wittekiend), Bobby (LeRoy S. Graham III), Ms. Forester (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn), Marisol (Emma Van Lare), and Jennifer (Dinah Berkeley) try to learn something together in Will Eno's The Substitution. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Collaborating with the playwright and director in the rehearsal room also provides the MFAs a deeper understanding of how a new play crystallizes into a finished work. “Will and Anne were curious about the piece and what we thought about the themes, the characters, the story,” says Emma Van Lare. “They were very open and eager for differing points of view and opinions.”

Working with Eno and Kauffman on The Substitution, the MFAs had the chance to invest in the process of creating the work and more deeply understand their characters. “It feels luxurious to have the playwright in the room and be able to ask clarifying questions about character arcs, intentions, and relationships,” says Dinah Berkeley. “It’s a real treat to have this opportunity and it’s one of the most seductive things about new works for me.”

LeRoy S. Graham III agrees. “In digesting the work as a collective, we found areas for more play within the text,” says Graham. “It’s a beautiful piece and I think that bringing our full hearts in the room allowed for great creative development from all angles.”

Acting in a new work is a great opportunity for MFAs to put the training they gain in class into practice, such as with A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Joy Meads’s playwriting class. “Joy’s class was a huge help in understanding how I could be maximally helpful to Will as he finalized the script,” says Jeff Wittekiend. “It’s been very useful to have a sense of the writer’s perspective, needs, and goals during a play development process.”

Guy (Tony Hale) shares what he finds most important in life in Will Eno's Wakey, Wakey. Photo by Kevin Berne.

“This experience has allowed me to explore the collaborative part of my artistry in a professional setting,” says Van Lare. “We collaborate every day in our training program with our classmates, but this experience has been a practice in bringing my full creative self into a room regardless of how well I know the team. It’s been a practice in agency as an actor and shows that our voices are just as important in bringing forth the fully realized artistic vision of a show.”

“Anne and Will have been so supportive of our exploration that I feel confident we’ll find not the ‘right’ way to tell this story, but the truthful way,” Berkeley says, “the fullest way, and the most fun way to invite the audience into this world.”

Wakey, Wakey is onstage now at the Geary Theater. Click here for tickets!

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