Harbor Stage Company's summer season usually includes one experimental play, and this year is no exception.
"The audience is so close to the actors in the theater," says Jonathan Fielding, Harbor Stage cofounder and himself an actor. "I wondered what it would be like to light a play from the audience."
Fielding enlisted his partner, Brenda Withers, to co-write "Northside Hollow," which is having its world premiere July 16-Aug. 8 at the Wellfleet theater. "Northside Hollow" follows the harrowing ordeal of a miner trapped underground after a deadly explosion and stars Harbor Stage artistic director Robert Kropf and Alex Pollock.
To create the moody lighting inside a mine, the Harbor Stage team enlisted the help of Fred Uebele, who works in theater but also designs lighting for news programs on CNN. His concept will include a unique form of audience participation: Miner's caps will be left on some of the seats for audience members to wear. "We don't know yet if it will be a distraction or serve the story," Withers says, "but we love having the opportunity to try it out. If the audience isn't into it, the lighting design can be adjusted so we're not leaving the actors completely in the dark."
Uebele says that while his day job of lighting one-hour news shows is artistically worlds away from theater design, both require a team effort.
"Once the creative team decided that this is something they wanted to try, Jonathan and Brenda started playing with two headlamps in the rehearsal space," says Uebele. "Through doing that, they discovered things — the lamps would look best from the back row and in a more sepia color than they are naturally — and they relayed that to me and we started the discussion."
And what happens if audience members wearing headlamps turn their heads or look down at their programs?
"That's part of the joy and discovery," says Uebele, who will also provide supplemental lighting. "It's also a compelling reason to have approximately seven to nine headlamps doing the work."
Setting a play in the confines of an underground cavern may feel limiting to some writers, but Withers says she and Fielding researched the genre by looking at letters miners had written when they were trapped underground.
"We looked at some of the letters from the Chilean miners" — the 2010 story that captured the world's attention when 33 miners were trapped in a gold and silver mine for 69 days — "and we also found letters from early-20th-century and late-19th-century miners," says Withers.
There's something very basic and universal about the idea of being trapped or forced to stop and look at your life, she says.
"A lot of the issues that come up in the conversations in the play come from the letters," says Withers, "including religious issues, faith and redemption, and regrets and hopes."
Putting the story together took the duo several months, say Fielding and Withers, who have lived and worked together for years but never collaborated on writing.
"Brenda has much more writing experience than I do," says Fielding, who has written a one-person Halloween play and performs regularly with a number of theater companies. "But when we're back in New York during the offseason, I work with a collaborative creative group called Agnes Table," he says during a rehearsal break at Harbor Stage. "We build a piece with whatever we have in the room, so I'm comfortable with tossing ideas out there and waiting to see if they will work or not."
Withers, whose writing credits include the spoof "Matt and Ben," with her college friend Mindy Kaling, says her collaboration with Fielding was helped by the simplicity of the story.
"Our biggest concern was making sure the balance of the play tipped toward suspense rather than sentimentality," says Withers.
Company One collaborates
Company One Theatre, which has made collaborations and community partnerships part of its mission, will follow up this season's co-productions with Suffolk University ("Shockheaded Peter") and Huntington Theatre Company (each separately produced plays this spring by A. Rey Pamatmat) by teaming with both ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater next season. The collaboration with ART is its first.
Company One's Summer Williams will helm Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's "An Octoroon" (Jan. 28-Feb. 27 in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at Emerson's Paramount Theater) while Shawn LaCount will direct Young Jean Lee's "We're Gonna Die" (April 21-30 at ART's Oberon, with more dates to follow at a venue to be named later). "For us, co-producing is about accessibility, exposure, different audiences, marketing support, and further diversifying our audience," says Williams. For more information about the season, go to www
‘Veils’ lifted at Gloucester
"Veils," a drama that focuses on an African-American Muslim student who heads to Egypt for a year of studying abroad just in time for the Arab Spring uprising, will have a staged reading at Gloucester Stage Company July 14 before its regional premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in October. Playwright Tom Coash will be on hand, and the reading will be directed by Alyce Householter of Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. The "Veils" reading is part of Gloucester Stage's NeverDark series. Admission is "pay-what-you-wish." Call 978-281-4433 or go to www.gloucesterstage.com.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.