On a recent night at PURE Theatre, several of PURE's core members gathered to read the first draft of a play called Romeo and Naomi Ramirez, written by playwright and Savannah College of Art and Design professor Kathryn Walat. This wasn't in preparation for an upcoming production — none of the actors had rehearsed, and there was no guarantee any of them would interact with the play again once the reading was over. The evening's focus was on the playwright, who would be hearing her characters' voices for the first time.
Walat is one of the latest participants in PURE Lab, a play development program that's the quiet, cerebral sister to the theater company's more public face. The Lab has been a part of PURE since the company's founding 11 years ago, says co-founder Sharon Graci, when it was formed as a typical playwriting workshop, with several playwrights getting together to share their writing and critique each other's work. At that time, Lab participants were expected to produce something that would be staged at PURE — for example, Graci's husband and PURE co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers wrote Waffle Haus Christmas, which the company performed in 2011, as part of the Lab.
The program's format has since changed. "It's had a lot of permutations through 11 seasons, and this one seems to be the best fit for us," Graci says. "It's grown into something that doesn't have production associated with it. [The process] can be what it's going to be." The Lab is designed to offer playwrights whatever they need in order to move their work forward, whether that's a first or second draft reading by PURE's seasoned actors, or conversations with directors like Graci to help conceptualize staging possibilities. Generally, the Lab spends 18-24 months helping develop a play, although certain works progress much faster. Sometimes, PURE commissions plays that also go through the Lab process; in those cases, playwrights often have a deadline, as the play is destined for one of the company's regular seasons. The Lab has ended up being a kind of complement for the theater company. "The company is very actor-centric, and the Lab is very playwright-centric," Graci says.
That's especially true with established playwrights like former Lab participant Arlene Hutton (the playwright behind Last Train to Nibroc and As It Is in Heaven, both of which have been staged locally by the College of Charleston) and Walat, whose award-winning plays have premiered Off-Broadway and at celebrated theaters around the country. She met Graci when she moved to Savannah from New York four years ago. "I was looking for play companies interested in doing new, challenging work and developing new work," Walat says. That search led her to PURE, and she became a frequent audience member despite the two-hour drive to Charleston. Eventually, she and Graci began discussing her work, which led to the recent reading of Walat's play, Romeo and Naomi Ramirez, that Graci organized under the auspices of the Lab. "It's a loose reimagining of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in a Florida high school," says Walat. "The play is in its beginning stages, and this was the first opportunity to hear it outside my head and computer. That's so valuable for a writer."
As is the policy for all Lab readings, the actors went in cold. Though it seems counterintuitive, a cold reading is much more useful than a rehearsed one for a playwright, allowing her to experience her work more objectively. "A lot of times a not-right actor in a role can do damage — the words will sound less than they are. And it works the other way too. A great actor in a not-great role can make it sound better than it is," Graci says. "So a cold reading is extraordinarily helpful." That goes for the actors as well, who have to find the voices of their characters on the fly.
Romeo and Naomi Ramirez may make an appearance as a fully staged production on the PURE stage at some point, or it may not. Walat could even decide that she wants to workshop something else with the Lab, and that would be OK too. "For someone like Arlene Hutton or Kathryn, their careers are complex. Production's not always the best thing for that script," Graci says. "With Kathryn, what I would say is the Lab is more of a relationship with her, not with the work."
And Walat is ecstatic about that. "It's been such an amazing experience," she says. "To be able to say, 'I really feel like I need to hear [my play]' and [Graci] to say, 'Great, we'd love to do a reading,' — that's allowed me to jump back into the writing. It's been so meaningful to relocate and find an artistic company like this."