Inside The New Colony’s Unique and Effective Devising Process

Inside The New Colony’s Unique and Effective Devising Process

The New Colony’s production of KIN FOLK. Photo by Evan Hanover.

By Brynne Frauenhoffer

It’s been a big year for The New Colony. This season, they added an extra show to their usual slate for a total of 4 world premieres, they coordinated a six-city “World Premiere Conversation” for their co-production (with Definition Theatre Company) of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI, that production won playwright/Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder the Jeff Award for Best New Work, and, in the last few weeks, they simultaneously opened KIN FOLK and remounted BYHALIA at Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre space.

Since the company essentially ushered me into the Chicago storefront scene, I’ve been particularly excited to watch their successes this season.

I had lived in Chicago for all of three weeks when I attended a staged reading at The Den, where I heard an early draft of KIN FOLK (currently running on that exact same stage). William Glick’s script, in which a twenty-something suburbanite discovers the online world of mystical “otherkin” and begins expressing herself as an honest-to-God dragon, turns an easily-mocked Internet subculture into a compassionate case study in identity and belief. The play’s entrancing combination of oddity and sincerity instantly sold me on The New Colony’s style.

I wanted in on the action, so I applied for the company’s education programs: Associate Company and The Writers Room.

“Our process can feel mysterious,” says Stephanie Shum, Managing Director, who is currently performing in KIN FOLK. “It can manifest in so many different ways—this crazy musical, this weird comedy, this drama.” With their education programs, Shum says The New Colony aims to open up their process “and [give] people the tools to play around with that and see what happens.”

The Associate Company assembles a director, cast, and playwright, while The Writers Room gathers playwrights to support one another. Since I ended up a member of The Writers Room (in the Summer 2015 session), I can speak best for that experience, but both programs begin without scripts—since, as The New Colony titled a short documentary about their company, Script Comes Last.

“When I started writing for The New Colony, the ideal process was to bring in my story and have as many voices in the room telling me everything that I didn’t know,“ says Linder, “so that I would know exactly who I was writing for, and that I would have a better idea of how these characters talked and interacted before putting that on paper.”

Thus the workshop period begins with minimal text in the form of a concise story treatment. For my play, SYNCHRONICITY, I outlined the few sequences I had already planned and left lots of blank spaces in between. Treatments can vary in their level of detail, but they all serve solely as a jumping-off point for the director and actors.

This approach grants enormous agency to actors, allowing them to generate significant aspects of their character and making The New Colony’s casting process unique. “What we really look for is, anybody who just wants to play and have fun and make the craziest choice and then go from there,” says Shum.

When I attended The New Colony artistic generals a few months ago, I was not asked to prepare a monologue or sides; instead, they provided me with a story treatment, assigned me a character, and, for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, watched me and about twenty other actors improvise scenes based on the treatment.

“When the company first started, it was 50% theatre majors and 50% improvisers. Andy [Hobgood, Co-Artistic Director] really wanted to marry that spontaneity of improv and scripted work,” Shum elaborates. “Our process is really instinct and improv-based around actors with very loose character descriptions, with the director shaping things along the way to help guide the playwright towards what’s interesting, what’s come out in the room, specifically with this group of people.”

In Associate Company, each cast member does research and makes decisions about their characters. During The Writers Room, we playwrights served as actors for each other during workshop exercises. Linder assured us that we could never say anything “wrong”– as actors, we were each free to explore possible personalities and motivations, and, as playwrights, we were free to choose which responses we found useful.

We started with character interviews. For SYNCHRONICITY, Beth Kander answered my questions as bereaved mother Karen; her dry delivery and unflinching honesty gave me valuable inspiration for the character I had deemed most difficult to develop.

Next were improvised scenes. Starting with an idea from my treatment for SYNCHRONICITY, Kaitlin Gilgenbach and Andrea Beschel played with the possibilities of two teen characters—one alive, one undead—meeting at a roadside memorial. I got to watch my roughly-sketched characters speak for themselves, making the first draft of that scene all that much easier to write.

These exercises often inspire direct dialogue. “With KIN FOLK, there’s a lot from the workshop that I remember hearing for the first time in the first week that’s still in the script,” says Shum, “but it’s changed dramatically. I think it’s cool that there’s flexibility in that for the playwright to be like, well, let’s go in this direction now and completely do something that was not even in the treatment.”

Once the playwrights have watched actors explore ideas through interviews and scenes, they return to the page. At the end of six weeks, each member of The Writers Room brought in a scene to hear aloud and discuss. I benefitted hugely from my group’s investment in my story and their sharp ears for dialogue.

After responding to each other’s’ pages, we split for three months, giving each playwright time and space to create a first draft. The Associate Company has a parallel schedule, with a workshop period, followed by writing time, culminating in a two-weekend production at The Den.
Out of our first drafts, two received staged readings at The Den (SYNCHRONICITY and Fin Coe’s FUN HARMLESS WARMACHINE), and The New Colony chose to produce Spenser Davis’s MERGE this fall. They also snagged Gilgenbach as an Associate Company writer for FACE THE DAY.

In the case of KIN FOLK, The New Colony developed the script over several years, with various readings and rewrites as Glick went back and forth between Chicago and grad school at UT Austin. Though The New Colony prioritizes in-the-room devising, they also respect playwrights’ time alone with a script. “I think going to grad school and writing far away from us with our voices in his head gave [Glick] a little more freedom even to play around more,” Shum says.

In addition to the collective spirit between cast, director, and playwright, The New Colony also cultivates collaboration with other theatre companies. BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI was a co-production with Definition Theatre Company and premiered simultaneously in four cities (with two other cities hosting staged readings) during what The New Colony called a World Premiere Conversation. Linder says the experience caused him to ask, “Why don’t people do this more? Why don’t a lot of theaters all launch these things at the same time? Because it can spark what we hope theatre does, which is conversations and relationships and friendships.”

The New Colony’s ever-growing buzz in the storefront scene attests to the power and innovation of their devising process, and with SYNCHRONICITY set for an upcoming workshop at Salt Lake Acting Company, I couldn’t be more grateful or proud to have been one of their collaborators

About author

Brynne Frauenhoffer

Brynne spent most of her childhood performing The Lion King as a one-woman show and writing spec scripts for Pokemon. As an adult, she has decided to basically keep doing things like that forever. After graduating with a BFA in Drama from The University of Oklahoma, she moved to Chicago, where she now pursues playwriting, acting, and comedy.