Staged readings, at least those like the one that Kitchen Dog Theater mounted last night for local playwright Eric Steele’s Midwest Trilogy, help you to realize just what an amazingly collaborative experience drama can be. When I think about the birth of a great play, I picture a lonely writer toiling away in some quiet apartment, bleeding his brilliance onto the page. But the “talkback” at the end of the show — during which Steele bravely sat as he was peppered with criticisms and suggestions for improving his work — underlined the important role that the audience plays in the theatrical arts.
The reading was the last in Kitchen Dog’s New Works Festival, which has a full production of Long Way Go Down as its headliner this year. As the title suggests, Midwest Trilogy is a collection of three short plays. One takes place in Iowa, another in Nebraska, and the third in Kansas (though I don’t typically think of Topeka as being in the Midwest, I’ve been told that I am wrong.) Each of the stories forces the audience to feel a deep sense of discomfort as we realize that the snap judgments that we’ve made about certain characters early on were perhaps too harsh, and in some cases we feel our initial sympathies suddenly reversed. Based on the audience feedback session, the plays accomplished this with varying degrees of success.
I hesitate to share my own views of the work because my sister (a graduate of the American Conservatory Theater) was a member of the cast. (My wife was delighted when she immediately recognized another of the actors: this guy from Friday Night Lights.) What I do want to do is express my admiration for Steele and for director Lee Trull, who took to the stage after the show and pushed us to tell them where we felt that the work had failed and where it had succeeded. They seemed honestly driven to enhance this piece of art. And I also want to compliment the intelligence with which audience members responded. Their thoughtful critiques should allow Steele to make his work even better. I expect that he can and will.
After we finished with the workshopping, the short film version of “Topeka” (one of the three acts of the Trilogy) was shown. It’s apparently been making the film-festival rounds. I felt it had worked better as a play, since what had been subtle on the stage was made much more blatant in the movie. Below is the trailer. See if you can identify the Dallas location where it was shot:
(Image: a screen shot from the short film Topeka.)