The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to leave hurdles in its wake for those whose business is to create. But arguably, none have faced the wrath of its rippling effects the way those in the live event industry have — notably theater, which has remained shuttered or drastically altered throughout most of the country.
However, drama professors at Clarke University are adapting, making the most of virtual mediums to remain creative, connected with audiences and, most importantly, to create an educational opportunity for students and a cultural opportunity for the community.
Beginning today, Clarke will launch the “Otherworld” Play Development Project, a year-long effort that aims to give students and audiences a glimpse into the stages of the play development process.
Audiences can tune in at 7 p.m. to “The Creative Spark: Igniting and Nurturing a New Dramatic Text.” The free moderated discussion, which will take place virtually via Zoom, will examine how theater artists approach the creative process, particularly in the development and adaptation of new work.
Spearheaded by professor of drama Joe Klinebriel and director in residence Nicholas Halder, Clarke commissioned Minneapolis playwright and 2003 Clarke alum Heather Meyer to pen the work.
“I was having conversations with Heather about her experience in the improv world, especially with COVID, and how she was navigating that difficult time to see if we could get some ideas about how to approach our fall semester, kind of knowing that it was unlikely we’d be able to perform as we usually would on stage,” Klinebriel said. “We ended up having a larger conversation about the world of theater moving forward. Knowing Heather and knowing her background as a playwright, we recognized some potential to explore the development of a play.”
Fostering the development of a play, from inception to production, is new ground for Clarke, Klinebriel added. “Otherworld” will serve as an adaptation of the fateful Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, highlighting the facets of Eurydice’s side of the tale that haven’t often been told in a multitude of other adaptations.
“It’s about two people being separated, and it hits a lot of the levels we all are right now,” Meyer said. “I’ve always thought it was a great mythical story, and I jumped in with the idea of taking it and applying it to where we are today.”
After graduating from Clarke, Meyer, 39, began her theatrical work as a performer and improv artist before developing sketch comedies. That eventually led her to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting.
Now finding a comfortable niche in the worlds of performing and writing, Meyer’s work has been performed in 20 states, with an assortment of prestigious commissions. She was a staff writer on the animated series, “Uma and Devan: Namaste,” and is the creator of the comedy game show, “Women’s History Month: The Historical Comedybration,” which has performed since 2013.
She also is the head writer for The Theatre of Public Policy, a writer for the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre and is a founding member of the Twin Cities Playwright Cabal, a collective of female-identified playwrights increasing the visibility of new work in Minnesota.
“I’m drawn to exploring the female perspective in plays,” Meyer said. “It’s always very exciting to see what kind of an adventure you can go on when reimagining a classic story from the perspective of a different character. And I’m always very excited about writing for female performers.”
Meyer will be joined for the virtual discussion by another champion for female roles both on stage and off in drama, 2019 Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin.
Regarded as an imaginative advocate for new and devised work, Chavkin is the director of Broadway’s “Hadestown,” which garnered eight 2019 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Her Broadway credits also include “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and “Lempicka,” among others.
Chavkin, the only female director at the helm of a Broadway musical last season, is married to Clarke alum and Davenport, Iowa, native Jake Heinrichs.
“It’s very exciting and kind of a serendipitous moment that we both approached the retelling of a similar story and that we’ll get to share our different backgrounds and approaches to this work,” Meyer said. “Obviously, she champions it on a very visible level, so being on this panel with her will be great fun.”
As online participants will be able to ask questions of Meyer and Chavkin about their creative process, Meyer said audiences likely will impact the creation of “Otherworld.”
“Once we get to the reading, it’ll be an opportunity for me to observe how the audience engages with the play and experience what they have to say,” she said. “As a playwright, you learn a lot from that — what works and what doesn’t, what’s clear and what could be a better way to tell the story.”
It also will present a unique opportunity for performers to have a hand in a production that is not yet complete in what could potentially be a hybrid format.
Meyer is crafting “Otherworld” with the possibility that the final production could be prerecorded and streamed, presented as a fully realized theatrical production or a combination of these platforms in April.
“Students will get to see the evolution of the process,” Halder said. “So many of us don’t even get an opportunity to work on new work, let alone the first production with the playwright in the room as part of the collaborative process. From an audience perspective, many see the play but never everything that leads up to it. I think this also give us an opportunity to create something of substance for a virtual format. Particularly in this pandemic, I think technology has been a valuable way to connect us and enable us to break barriers in being able to offer this platform for free programming.”
For Meyer, it’s coming full circle.
“I’m over the moon with Clarke giving me this opportunity,” she said. “So much of my heart is with Clarke and the theater professors that formed so much of who I am and how I learned to work as a part of a team. Getting to see the creative process behind writing a new play is not a process that is common, so it’s incredible and exciting for me to be able to give something back to Clarke in this way.”
The second event this fall will be the virtual reading of “Otherworld.” It will be the first opportunity for audience members to hear the new dramatic text and learn of next steps in the development process.
Audience members will have another opportunity to take part in a talkback session following the reading with Meyer and the production team.