‘New plays being born are such a delicate creature,’’ veteran director Moisés Kaufman says in “Playwright: From Page to Stage,’’ airing at
10 p.m. Monday on Channel 2. “And the writer working on a new play really must be nourished and respected.”
But Kaufman goes on to suggest it’s also important that the playwright be “encouraged to think about the play in very rigorous ways.”
That sounds like a recipe for creative tension, and, indeed, the interactions during preproduction meetings and rehearsals are sometimes charged in this absorbing and illuminating documentary, written and directed by Robert Levi.
Filming from 2008 to 2012, Levi captured the emergence of two immensely talented young playwrights: Tarell Alvin McCraney and Rajiv Joseph. The filmmaker tracked the preparations for breakthrough productions of McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays” and Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” conducting interviews with actors, directors, and the writers themselves.
After debuting in Los Angeles in 2009, “Bengal Tiger’’ opened in 2011 on Broadway, starring Robin Williams, while “The Brother/Sister Plays,’’ after premiering at the McCarter Theatre Center in 2009, were presented at New York’s Public Theater later that year. “It’s what people must have felt during productions of the early works of Eugene O’Neill in the 1920s or Sam Shepard in the 1960s,” New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley wrote of McCraney’s plays.
But neither McCraney nor Joseph could be sure that kind of success lay ahead for them when Levi began filming preparations for “The Brother/Sister Plays’’ and “Bengal Tiger.’’ And “From Page to Stage’’ makes clear that completing a script is just the beginning of what can be an ego-bruising journey for a playwright.
For instance, we see Kaufman, who directed “Bengal Tiger,” sharply questioning a line of dialogue in which one character gives a baffling reason for killing someone, and pressing Joseph for a fuller explanation of why the tiger and other characters are wandering through Baghdad as ghosts. Holding his ground, Joseph contends that “the reality of the ghost world is that no answers are going to be offered to the ghosts,” to which the director firmly responds: “I’m OK with the characters not knowing, but the writer has to know.”
“From Page to Stage” offers a glimpse of the severe strain on theater finances created by the recession. We sense the excitement playwrights feel when all the design elements (sets, lighting) come into play and their work stands before them in full theatrical form — and we also see how vigilant they must be about ensuring that their vision survives the staging process. “I need to be here and be in all the rooms,” McCraney says at one point.
The writer, who grew up in the troubled Liberty City section of Miami, created a rich multigenerational portrait of the family and social dynamics among black residents of a bayou community in “The Brother/Sister Plays.”
In the second play in the trilogy, “The Brothers Size,” McCraney tells the story of two brothers, one of whom doggedly works at his car-repair business while the other is pulled back into the orbit of a former prison cellmate. In “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” McCraney explores the challenges an African-American youth faces as he awakens to his gay identity. McCraney’s goal, he says in the documentary, is to “get you to come into these lives even when you think ‘This is not a part of who I am.’ ”
Movingly, McCraney describes a period of his youth when he was surrounded by drugs, his own mother was in rehab, and he was trying to figure out his own place in that turbulent milieu while working with a theater troupe affiliated with a drug-prevention program. “That was the moment where I said art must reflect, because the community needs to talk about these things, so that we can have a conversation about these issues that are at the forefront of all of our communities,” he says.
McCraney and Joseph are both likely to remain valuable voices in the ongoing conversation that is theater. Kudos to Levi for recognizing that.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.