by Coni Koepfinger
When Dr. Jenni Munday of the International Centre of Women Playwrights, asked me to share thoughts on my newest work for the stage, Playing Fate, I smiled and thought this really is fate. For I was just thinking about how fortunate I was to meet my director and witness the miraculous transformation of this ever-growing dramatic work. We only met a few months ago, but since collaborating with Cailin Heffernan, my writing has hit a whole new level. We started first working on the Eve of Beltane with my writing partner and master composer, Joe Izen. A process which we all felt was frankly easy and wonderful. So you can imagine it was amazing to me that my writing life was yet to get even better. This incredible experience, being able to lock into a relationship beyond the page, yet before the stage, has been truly enchanting. Why? Because it has made me actually look forward to revising! A daunting task most writers, including myself, dread. Why? Because, as we all know, it is hard work!
Allow me to access metaphor for a minute in order to better explain myself… Imagine you were hosting a dinner party with some of the world’s most distinguished guests. That is, when one writes for the theatre audience, especially in New York City, one never knows who is sitting out there…. Right? Anyhow, you first plan your menu, you gather the ingredients, then you start protocols and then cook. But how would this procedure change if you had a chef in the kitchen. Just imagine… Someone there to check the temperatures, to clean the utensils as you go, and to taste your dishes as they come into form. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Well, that is exactly what happened with this particular play. It started as a one-act called Fate, and during rehearsals, it suddenly spiraled into a full-length. Much like the occasion where you have asked a few friends over and suddenly you have a big event. Exactly. It’s a whole different animal. I was still dealing with the one-act, a perhaps trite love story to illustrate the hand of fate in our lives… But my director, Cailin, ever so gently kept suggesting that this was no longer the case. That the characters, that were now emerging, were not willing to hang locked against the stage walls for me to make a point for a generalization on the theme. These characters were willing, ready and able come center and show that they had living words to share, and they weren’t happy being silenced.
Just as I opened up the process of working on the play with my director, I now feel it is appropriate to let her share in this article about our work. So I will move from singular voice to dialogue. Please meet, my amazing director, Cailin Heffernan.
CK: Cailin, tell us how you got involved in the theatre?
CH: I came from a dance family, so I started dancing when I was three - that was just that. After I segued from Ballet to Theatre, I spent about fifteen years as a performer. I couldn’t imagine a life not in the arts and as my mentor, Vivian Matalon, liked to say - “If you’d pay to do it, then you should be in the theatre.” When acting was no longer making me content, I decided to become a director and for the first time in my life, felt completely at home in my skin. I went back for training from The New American Theatre School, HB Studios and Actors Studio. I was fortunate to be mentored by the aforementioned Vivian Matalon, Stephen Porter, Salem Ludwig, Bob Kalfin and Danya Krupska (Thurston). I had the pleasure of observing Sir Peter Hall as well.
CK: When you start to collaborate with a playwright as director, how is it different from say, working on your own dramatic writing?
CH: Well, it is great because it actually makes me do the work. And the collaboration makes you pick and choose battles. It can’t go all your own way as you are both compromising to create a shared vision. I have to be clearer and more concise in shared writing time. And, I have to really listen to what my collaborator is saying and translate it as best I can to marry my ideas. I guess you could say we create a new baby together.
CK: Now, for something specific about our collaboration… When you read the original text for Playing Fate, what made you see the depth of the work that caused its transformation revision?
CH: Must be noted, you give me too, too much credit. You’re an intrepid writer with an open hand, open heart and open mind. When I read your work, I like to first glean what is at the core of the piece. I tend to ask a plethora of “why” questions. Once I’ve picked out what is new (a character, a thought, a situation, a restatement…) and what is appealing; then I set forth to divine what is impeding that play - always with the writer’s intention clearly in mind. The characters themselves showed me the way in Playing Fate through their universal need to atone for their transgressions and forgive each other. In this instance, what was once a love story had evolved past that and become something else entirely. Playing Fate in its extended form harkened back to a family story of reconciliation akin to something from the American Classical Canon, for instance an Arthur Miller play. The characters of the father and two brothers shouted to me that this was their story and they would not be ignored. Since you agreed, the arc of this New York family came to life.
Thank you Cailin for sharing your insights. I hope it will inspire other playwrights who find themselves in similar circumstances. This business of making theatre, of creating something worth savoring, is vital today more than ever. I sense that audiences are hungry for something, not only to sate them for the time being but something that will give lasting nourishment, like the classics we all feed on. And we need plays that our collaborators- directors, actors, designers, can really sink their teeth into simply to sustain our sense of art on earth - Bon Appetit!
Playwright, Librettist, Artist and Educator, Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger is a playwright - in - residence at both Manhattan Repertory Theatre and Cosmic Orchid Theatre Company.
Cailin is a member of SDC, Dramatists Guild, AEA and SAG-AFTRA. She is an Associate Artistic Director with Boomerang Theatre Company.