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Studio's Lab Series Tests New Plays On A Budget

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Dirt is the second play in Studio Theatre’s Lab Series, a program designed to develop and premiere new works, with all tickets at $20.
Dirt is the second play in Studio Theatre’s Lab Series, a program designed to develop and premiere new works, with all tickets at $20.

Studio Theatre's next show is called Dirt. But, says artistic director David Muse, it isn't easy to get the dirt on Bryony Lavery's brand new play.

"It's a little hard to just encapsulate in a sentence or two," says Muse, who's directing the drama. "But it has something to do with dirt, and and dirt in many forms. Like dirt as soil. Dirt as the results of decomposition. Dirt as emotional mess."

Dirt's first performance is Oct. 17, but Muse expects the script to be in flux up until then.

"Over 50 percent of the play is new since I read it for the very first time," he says. "But we're sort of honing in on what we're going to do. And by the time the thing is in front of an audience, we expect it to be more or less complete — at least for this production!"

Dirt is the second show in Studio's Lab Series. Lungs by Duncan MacMillan, which Studio produced late last year, was the first. Muse says he dreamed up the Lab Series shortly after replacing Joy Zinoman as Studio's artistic head in 2010.

"I inherited an institution that hadn't done a lot of new play development," Muse explains. "And it's a personal interest of mine." Because sometimes, he says, you might find a play that you're really excited about, "but that's unfinished... or experimental, or noncommercial. And it can be hard to find a place for it in a season, but you feel passionate about producing it."

So, what do you do? In Muse's case, you launch a series outside your theater's regular subscription season, "to take the pressure off. And to free us up to take chances on things that weren't yet done."

And that, says Tony Award-nominated playwright Bryony Lavery, is what she calls "absolute playwright's heaven."

"We all discuss [the script] and laugh and try it and do different things in the rehearsal room, and then I go away and get up very early in the morning, and come in with propositions."

She offers those propositions to the director, and to "these most wonderful actors. So they immediately try and embody what was, in this case, we started working on two new characters. And so we kind of cooked them, and grew them up, from the ground.

"I'm slightly gushing because I'm having such a good time!" she adds with a laugh.

One of Lavery's "most wonderful actors" is Holly Twyford, a Washington-area native who's been gracing stages for two decades. Another is Matthew Montelongo; Dirt marks the fourth show the two actors have done together.

Twyford and Montelongo have both performed in world premieres before. But because this material has been so raw, and so malleable, they say the Lab Series experience has stood out.

"From an actor's point of view, it's good for us to develop that muscle, to commit to something wholly, and then the next day it might be something completely different that you're engaging with equal passion and fervor," Montelongo says.

"A lot of times actors' jobs are as interpreters," Twyford adds. "Which is still really fun and exciting. But this really takes it to the next level of actually being able to help tell the story."

Now, in the case of Dirt, 'the story' involves a kind of love triangle between a guy named Matt, played by Matthew Montelongo, a waitress named Elle, and then Holly Twyford's character: a woman named Harper who is, actually... a dead body.

"Which is not a spoiler," Twyford is quick to point out, "because from the moment I walk on stage, I say, 'now I'm the body!'"

The play goes on to explore the various characters, and, as Bryony Lavery says, various questions. "When we die, actually what happens to us? What we know for certain is that we become dirt. But are we dirt, or are we, what's the word, not gods, but spirits? You know, are we low or are we high? Are we base or are we divine?"

Sounds like pretty heavy stuff, sure, but as the playwright notes, "It is very funny and very moving. Serious [and] light." And that's a big reason Muse selected Dirt for the Lab Series: not only might it engage all sorts of audiences, but it could enjoy a rich and full life after this production. Last year's show, Lungs, has since been produced a number of times in America and Great Britain, and it recently received a nomination at The Theatre Awards U.K.

"If we tried to create a play every single time that was going to go for the world, then the project in a way wouldn't work," Muse explains. "Because we would start to second guess ourselves and focus on the success of the thing, as opposed to what the writer needs in the development process at that time."

Muse says he's pleased to see more Washington-area theaters focus on new-play development. But what sets Studio apart, he says, is how the Lab Series allows a play to change so dramatically from the first reading to the first performance.

"Which is a kind of crazy, nervous-making, exciting, freeing way to work, that could be a kind of glorious hit-or-miss enterprise," he says. "And you're meant to come with an open mind, and to see what we've come up with so far."

[Music: "Digging in the Dirt (Instrumental)" by Peter Gabriel from Us]


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