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The experiment within a new Utah play: 'We were all blown away with how he choreographed to words so beautifully’

(Photo courtesy Joshua Black/Salt Lake Acting Company) Darrell T. Joe and Mikki Reeve perform for a focus group during a March rehearsal of “Silent Dancer.”

The Salt Lake Acting Company and playwright Kathleen Cahill are trying something different. Their new production “Silent Dancer” mixes drama and dance — but not music, for the most part.

“This is using dance as a means of expression. To express an intense emotion,” Cahill said. “Usually in plays when there’s dance, they have what’s called the dance break. There’s kind of a showbiz moment where they dance and there’s music. But this isn’t like that.”

The play is about a Jazz Age interracial romance between Rosie Quinn (Mikki Reeve) and Perry Branfield (Darrell T. Joe) and features fictionalized versions of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Noah Kershisnik and Alice Ryan). There’s the sort of dialogue you’d expect to see in a play, and there’s dialogue that’s expressed in “silent” dance.

There are a couple of traditional dance numbers in a jazz club, but they’re the exception.

(Photo courtesy Joshua Black/Salt Lake Acting Company) Kathleen Cahill (top) and Cynthia Fleming prepare for a workshop of “Silent Dancer.”

That non-verbal dance language — they’re calling it “choreo-text” — was created by Christopher Ruud, who recently retired from dancing after two decades of performing with Ballet West.

“I emailed him thinking, ‘Oh, he’ll never answer me back,’ but he did,” said director Cynthia Fleming, who is SLAC’s executive artistic director. “We were all blown away with how he choreographed to words so beautifully.”

“He takes a sentence and he goes, ‘OK, what does that look like physically?’ He thinks that way,” Cahill said.

It’s been a nerve-wracking departure for her and for SLAC.

“Every step of the way, it’s been — can this really work?” Fleming said. Cahill added: “It’s beyond scary to me. ... It’s extremely ambitious and it’s extremely crazy, but it’s working.”

How does she know? Because, before “Silent Dancer” was first seen in its entirety by a paying audience Wednesday, various versions of it have been seen by select audiences over the four years that Cahill, Fleming and Ruud have been working on it.

And a recent performance for a small, invited audience — just weeks before the premiere — resulted in further changes. The actors now speak during the early dance sequences, then speak less and less while dancing as the play progresses.

That recent performance was “when we realized that we should have some of it spoken,” Cahill said. “People said that it started out weird, and then they became used to it. That’s when we discovered that we’re educating the audience. ... I wouldn’t have come to that if I hadn’t been able to hear it in these other situations, like a reading.”

Using audience feedback to develop plays isn’t new. SLAC has been doing public readings for 25 years. Plan-B Theatre Company has been doing its “Script in Hand” series for at least 15 years. (Most recently: A reading of “Balthazar” last week.) And Pioneer Theater has been presenting its Play-by-Play series since 2014. (Next up: “The Way North” on April 19-20.)

SLAC had a reading of playwright Elaine Jarvik’s “Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet” last month, and the theater was near its 160-person capacity. (Readings are generally free at SLAC and Plan-B, though tickets must be reserved. Pioneer charges for its readings.)

The format was fairly typical for readings: The actors stood side-by-side onstage; they weren’t in costume; they were reading from scripts — but they were acting.

“That’s when the play comes alive,” Fleming said. “If the audience isn’t hearing the right things, you have to make adjustments.”

“At the end of the day, playwrights need to hear their words and they need to hear them in front of an audience because it’s not alive unless it’s read,” said Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier. “You can read it over and over on the page, but until you hear people speak and observe people listening to what’s being said — that’s when you really know what works and what doesn’t.”

Many of those who stayed for the post-play feedback session for “Four Women” weren’t shy about expressing their opinions. Jarvik actively solicited feedback, asking “Should it be longer?” (It came in just under an hour.) “What would you want to see? What characters should be more fleshed out?”

Some of the responses were unexpected, like the man who was hoping for a Trump joke in a play about the day after Frederick Douglass died. The play features Douglass’s widow, his daughter and suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

“You never know what the audience member is going to say,” Fleming said.

One woman tactfully criticized the “unusual amount of bickering” a day after Douglass’s death, suggesting it might have been better set a week later at a reading of the will. “I’m not quite sure I agree with that,” said another audience member, whose comments made it clear he didn’t agree at all.

“I love it when the audience starts kind of disagreeing with each other,” Fleming said with a laugh. “That’s always good.”

There were differing opinions about which characters deserved more attention, and about the length. And there was a certain element of performance in some of the questions.

“Are you writing for this piece to be at a theater that welcomes authentic, great voices like Salt Lake Acting Company? Or maybe theater like Hale Theatre?” one woman jokingly asked Jarvik, to uproarious laughter and scattered applause.

Jarvik worried aloud that her portrayal of Douglass’s widow is “too negative”; she was reassured it is not.

“Elaine got some very good feedback and is making some changes to her play based on some of the audience remarks,” Fleming said.

It’s a mixed bag at readings.

“Most of the time people ask questions seeking information rather than critical questions,” Cahill said. “But somebody says something every once in a while that I hold on to. They have a perspective that I wouldn't have thought of.”

After putting a draft of “Silent Dancer” that featured an older incarnation of Rosie as the narrator in front of an audience, Cahill learned “it just didn’t work.”

She rewrote the play to make the younger Rosie the narrator — a significant change, but not a massive overhaul. Although that’s not unheard of after a public reading.

Rapier recalled working with playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett on a play that was a series of monologues about gender and ethnic identity. But a reading made it clear the play wasn’t working, though a transgender character, Eric, stood out.

Bennett wrote a second play, but that “also didn’t work” at a subsequent reading. “So Matt scrapped that entire play” and focused on the Eric character in “ERIC(A),” which became “one of the most, I think, truly unique and successful shows that we have ever produced,” Rapier said. “He had the opportunity to listen to that character over and over again in various situations and realized what to do with this connection. It was an incredibly, horribly painful journey for Matt that is now one of his greatest joys.”

Constructive feedback benefits playwrights, but what do patrons get out of readings?

“You get to be a part of a new play development process, and see a play in its newest form,” Fleming said.

“Even comments that don’t actually make their way into the writing process are still helpful for a playwright,” Rapier said.

Patrons aren’t required to provide feedback; it’s entirely voluntary. They aren’t even required to stay after the reading ends — some do, some don’t.

“If you don’t want to give your feedback, just your presence in the room and your reactions to the reading itself is so extremely helpful to the playwright,” Fleming said.

“There is certainly that,” Cahill added. “I mean, you can tell if people are interested because they listen. And if they’re bored you can tell that for sure.”

And there’s a certain excitement that comes with the reading of a play that’s still in the development stages.

“Readings don’t get a lot of rehearsal, of course,” Rapier said. “They’re really run on adrenaline, and I think that’s what draws some people to them.”

Including a group of adrenaline junkies.

“There’s a handful of people that just love readings,” Rapier said. “They just love to be in on the ground floor of the writing process.”

“There are some people that have come to most of them,” Fleming agreed. “These are people that are used to seeing and then articulating and responding to what their experience was. ... They ignite your imagination in a whole different way.”

First-timers are also welcome, however. The readings are a way for theater companies to build relationships with ticket buyers. But the events are not merely for show, so to speak.

“Some people placate writers with readings,” Rapier said, “but I really feel like everyone that’s doing readings in Utah is really trying to give the writer space to experience their pieces with an audience, more often than not for the first time, to see what shape their play is in and where to go from there.”

SEEING ‘SILENT DANCER’

Salt Lake Acting Company will debut this new production on April 10.

What • “Silent Dancer” by Kathleen Cahill

Summary • This tale of interracial romance, secret identities, maids, dancers, criminals, silent movies and the most famous couple in New York — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — combines drama and dance.

When • April 10 to May 12. Wednesdays–Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Additional performances: April 20 at 2 p.m., April 23 at 7:30 p.m.; April 30 at 7:30 p.m.; May 11 at 2 p.m.

Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25-$44, with discounts for students, 30-and-under and seniors at saltlakeactingcompany.org, 801-363-7522 or at the box office.

CATCH ‘THE WAY NORTH’

Pioneer Theatre Company is offering the third and final play reading of its 2018-19 season on April 19 and 20.

What • “The Way North” by Tira Palmquist

Summary • When a lost pregnant young woman stumbles on to Freddy Hansen’s rural Minnesota homestead, the county’s former sheriff doesn’t hesitate to take her in. But when Freddy’s guest turns out to be a Sudanese refugee making a run for the Canadian border, what it means to protect and serve becomes a more complicated question.

When • Friday, April 19, and Saturday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m; Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.

Where • Babcock Theatre, 300 South 1400 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $10 at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

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