“All that I knew was that there was this guy who was going to write a play based on what we did,” says first-year MFA student Stefanée Martin. Before this summer, the Maryland native, who plays a fortune teller in the American Conservatory Theater’s upcoming show Niagara Falls (December 12-14), had never been to San Francisco. In the last week of September she found herself in a three-day workshop with playwright Steven Yockey, director Melissa Smith, and about dozen other MFA students. Their shared goal: to write, direct, and act a show that would open in December.
It was hard to see there from here. At the moment, they had no script, no set, and no plan--except to trust in each other. After three months of work, they ended up with a supernaturally-inflected play about honeymooning newly-weds who put themselves—and their relationship—under the microscope. The world premiere of their play, Niagara Falls, begins on Wednesday.
Yockey, a brainy young writer, is in his second year of partnership with the A.C.T. program, which trains young actors. Along with Smith, he leads the actors in three days of improvisation workshops, all based along material that he provides. Last year, he brought two Japanese ghost tales. This time around, he showed up with three poems by Billy Collins, asking the students to reflect on them and create loose monologues—riffs, really—on their themes. Elvin McRae, a student who plays a new husband, laughs about it now. “We had only known each other for a month when Steve came in. We still had to get to know each other before we got to know him.”
But they pressed ahead, doing their own writing, improvisation games, and philosophical discussions—all aimed at providng Yockey with enough raw material to make a script. He promised to write parts that reflected the actors, but not directly. According to Smith, Yockey left them with a warning: “What I deliver won’t be what you expect.”
After those three days, Yockey absconded with his ideas and his word processor. But he couldn’t spend too much time ruminating—because he only had a month before his script was due back to ACT. Thematically, he zeroed in on the dramatic possibility of weighing major life choice from multiple perspectives. “Our conversation ended focused on the ephemerality of life.”
Yockey writes relatively quickly, especially when he does it for specific actors. But it’s still difficult, because “when I write something, it isn’t because I know what I want to say. It’s because I’m wrestling with it. It’s more risky, but it’s also more fun.” It’s a tough job in any circumstances, and even harder because he had to write for 12 actors and a minimal amount of technical production. But after four weeks and two drafts, he turned in a seventy page script.
As Yockey hammered the words into place, the actors were hard at work in their classes, which covered everything from physical movement to field trips to local theaters. Then came the moment when the script came back—along with the cast list. According to McRae, “All of us got the script before the cast list. We read it and tried to predict which character we would be playing—nobody got it right. We saw parts of ourselves in each character.”
After the parts were assigned came the table read, where the group of actors ran through the script for the first time. McRae admits, “on our first read we thought it was a wild quantum physics play. We were a little dumfounded.” But because Yockey had written the parts based on the actors’ personalities, it began to come together. Martin “found things in my character that resonate on a very deep level. I don’t even know how Steve would have picked up on those things. But he did.”
Under Smith’s direction, the production began to take shape. She coaxed one actor to be less constrained. Another was cautioned to make less use of arm and hand gestures. It’s all been hard work—the actors drill in a black box space in the Financial District for at least five hours a day, six days a week. Rehearsals started the Monday of Thanksgiving week.
McRae has her own strategy for dealing with pressure: “My scene partner and I have blocked out time on our own. We can’t start from zero and have the director build us up. We have to start at 50 and build to 100.” She has another secret, besides the hard work. “I’m never panicked during rehearsal. That’s up to Melissa as the director.”
If all goes as planned, Yockey flies back on December 10th for one last series of rehersals, giving him one last chance to give input into the show. But if he wants to make any changes, there won’t be much time. The show will go live to audiences on the 12th. Is Smith panicke on behalf of the actors? Not really. She thinks that the work the students have put in will pay off. But, she shrugs, “there is always an element of prayer.”
Niagara Falls runs from Deceber 12th to 14th at the Hastings Studio Theater on 77 Geary Street. For more information and tickets, click here.