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Phase 1: Research & Development

Updated: Jan 15

How did CTC create the critically acclaimed, award-winning production, The Woman Who Was Me

Picture this: Liz and I, Central Park adventurers. Strolling and chatting, we stumble upon an empty swing set. Naturally, we swing into action—pumping those swings like playground pros, soaring higher with each whoosh! Once we settled down, Liz spilled the beans about a playwright conjuring a solo act where the leading lady transforms into a tree on stage. Talk about swinging into theatrical magic! I was hooked and ready to dive in.

Embarking on Creative Discovery:

Unveiling the Vision in Phase 1

Before we plunge into the realm of creation, we embark on a crucial journey—unpacking the vision. Why? The vision serves as our compass, guiding every step within the expansive landscape of creative development. Whether your vision is crystal clear or in the form of a draft, what matters is the existence of a vision ready to be brought to life. With this guiding star in place, we set forth into the realm of research.

In this post, we’ll delve into:

  • Playing to Learn

  • Embodied Research

  • Theatrical Research

  • Audience Research

  • Learning to Play

We'll explore three examples from The Woman Who Was Me, shedding light on the outcomes of our Developmental Pathway to Production. Liz Stanton, the Project Visionary & Actor, presented us with a grand vision for what some deemed an "unproduce-able" play—an endeavor full of challenges for the theatrical team. Undeterred, Liz, known for transforming the impossible into reality, was determined to assemble a team to breathe life into this compelling play. Thrilled to join the journey, I initially took on the role of producer and later embraced the additional role of director. Let's delve into the stories from our early days of experimentation and research that paved the way for The Woman Who Was Me, to come to fruition.

A play for one woman by Peter Grandbois.

Playing to Learn

In this initial phase, we play to learn. Playing is often called experiential learning, as we learn through our experience. To shape our collective learning, we craft questions and delve into areas of inquiry about the vision. Our team explores source materials and central questions by getting on our feet in the studio, learning through action and reflection. 

"You cannot create results. You can only create conditions in which something might happen." 

—  Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre, Routledge 2003.

We experiment with theatrical storytelling devices and elements, resulting in a plethora of material, including source materials, character sketches, narrative drafts, and storytelling forms. It's the foundation upon which we build our story and production. Play is essential to our process. Play keeps us engaged and open to learning. Play also establishes a healthy, inclusive collaborative work environment. When we play, we are delighted and often surprised by the outcomes. Recalling Anne’s quote, play creates the conditions for something might happen- something magical and transformational!

How do we play? Let’s explore a few examples of how playing leads to artistic outcomes through Embodied, Theatrical, and Audience Research.

Embodied Research:

Unleashing Creativity Through the Physical Realm

Embodied research refers to a mode of investigative exploration that involves the physical and sensorial experiences of the visionary, creative team, and audience. It goes beyond traditional academic or theoretical research and emphasizes the direct engagement of the participants’ body, emotions, and senses in the creative process.

In embodied research, artists often immerse ourselves in the subject matter or themes we are exploring by physically experiencing and expressing them. This may involve activities such as movement exercises, improvisation, sensory exploration, and other forms of physical expression. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the material or concept through direct bodily engagement, allowing the artist to tap into a more visceral and intuitive understanding.

This approach is valuable in the development of all types of performances where the body and its movements play a crucial role in storytelling. It encourages artists to connect with their own bodies, emotions, and physicality to uncover unique insights and perspectives that may inform the creative process and ultimately contribute to a more authentic and embodied performance.

We use various approaches and methods including, but not limited to:  

  • Contemplative Dance Practice 

  • Developmental Movement Technique™

  • Extended Voice

  • Grotowski & Physical Acting

  • Somatics & Experiential Anatomy  

  • The Viewpoints

Why these approaches? We find them to be inclusive and welcoming to a diverse set of experiences which allows for multiple perspectives to form the full story. We believe in including authentic voices to share stories that celebrate multiple aesthetics, cultural expressions, and genres.

Let’s look at an example from The Woman Who Was Me. Our studio exploration delved into the sound and rhythm of the blades, consistently inconsistent. This was one element of the script that Liz was excited to explore! Liz, through vocal and physical improvisation, located the sound of the fan blades in the front of her mouth: lips, teeth, and the tip of her tongue. We explored the rhythm and tempo of Liz's sound inspired by the images in the play and Peter's text. The live sound became an audible yet subtle effect. The embodied fan blades led us to explore repetitive eye movements and Lannie becoming the fan blades, cutting through space with her full body as she shares her story.

Our play revealed myriad ways to embody the fan blades without needing a real fan, creating physical theatrical forms inspired by the poetry of the text and the character’s inner journey. These forms wove through the theatrical narrative, contributing to a dynamic, powerful performance.

With her cheery voice, fearless physicality, flowing mane of curly hair, wide eyes and unabashed mature physique, Ms. Stanton commands the stage…”

— Darryl Reilly, TheaterScene

“As the woman who yearns to be called “Elizabeth”, Liz Stanton is perfectly cast. She wears the well-earned physical and emotional “war scars” of a middle-aged woman, but she can also expertly express moments of girlish joy in an instant” 

— Jed Ryan, The Huffington Post

Theatrical Research:

The Laundry Tree Journey

The heart of theatrical research lies in a hands-on approach that delves into various theatrical elements, enriching storytelling within the realm of theater. This method champions experiential learning and experimentation, seeking to pinpoint theatrical techniques and components that powerfully convey the intended vision and leave a lasting impact on the audience as storytellers.

During theatrical research, our journey involves a dynamic process of investigation and discovery, actively experimenting with elements such as staging, lighting, sound, costumes, performance styles, and aesthetics. This approach serves as a canvas to evaluate how these components can contribute to the overall narrative and emotional impact of a production.

Beyond theoretical understanding, theatrical makers actively seek practical applications for our experiments in a live performance setting. This collaborative effort among the creative team and audience allows for testing and refining various elements of the production.

Liz's ingenious introduction of the "Laundry Tree" as the show's central architecture brought forth not only practical functionalities but also a realm of symbolic richness. Beyond its tangible uses—its capacity to hold, turn, and its portability—the laundry tree unfolded a deeper narrative, weaving threads of suburban living, motherhood, and the profound symbolism of women's work. This exploration transformed the laundry tree into an active collaborator, animating ordinary objects into characters and weaving a tapestry of memories for the character Lanie/Elizabeth.

The goal of theatrical research is to inform artistic decisions and elevate the storytelling capabilities of a theatrical work. Immersed in hands-on exploration, we can make informed choices, effectively communicate our vision, and create a compelling and memorable theatrical experience.

The "Laundry Tree", emerging as a theatrical marvel, seamlessly transitioned from a bed to a bustling city street and transformed into Lanie's closet. This single object, explored in its literal, symbolic, poetic, and theatrical dimensions, elevated the production, captivating the audience in a mesmerizing dance of storytelling. The Laundry Tree transcended its physical form, becoming an artistic conduit that not only enhanced the visual spectacle but also forged a profound connection with the audience—a world where simplicity and dynamism coalesce in a symphony of creativity.

“Poignant in their simplicity, the show’s design elements underscore Lanie’s hazy search for self and highlight the dreamlike mental and physical realms she traverses. The white-and-beige palette of WT McRae’s sets and Natalie Loveland’s costumes embody the blandness Lanie longs to escape, but, when coupled with Kate Jaworski’s primary-color lighting and Victoria Pike’s video projections, function as a blank canvas for her longings, fears, discoveries, and creations.”

 — Emily Cordes, Theater is Easy

“Filled with psychological insights, arresting imagery, and fierce acting, The Woman Who Was Me is a compelling and highly theatrical confessional.”

— Darryl Reilly, TheaterScene

While some original choices from our theatrical research continue in the production, many new discoveries have emerged through play and experimentation. Watch the short video to witness the theatrical evolution of the The Woman Who Was Me from 2014 to 2017.

Audience Research 

Audience research in the context of theater involves actively engaging the audience in the creative development process to understand their experiences, perspectives, and reactions. It recognizes the audience as an essential component of the storytelling dynamic, aiming to create a more inclusive and responsive theatrical experience. This approach involves posing specific questions to the audience during and after performances, incorporating their feedback into the creative process, and fostering a dialogue between artists and spectators.

Questions posed to the audience during the creative development process can include:

What did you see?

  • Inviting the audience to share their observations and interpretations of the performance, encouraging them to reflect on the visual and sensory aspects.

What caught your interest or attention?

  • Exploring the elements of the performance that resonated with the audience, helping artists understand what aspects were particularly engaging or impactful.

What questions emerged? What would you like to know more about?

  • Encouraging the audience to articulate their curiosities and uncertainties, providing valuable insights into what aspects of the story may need further clarification or exploration.

By actively involving the audience in the creative process and incorporating their perspectives, we gain valuable insights, refine our work, and create a more resonant and meaningful theatrical experience that connects with the diverse perspectives of the audience. This participatory approach helps bridge the gap between creators and spectators, fostering a more collaborative and dynamic relationship in the world of theater. We also begin building an audience for the work long before we get to production!

Example: From Desire to Need

When Liz and I initiated the exploration of The Woman Who Was Me, we recognized the importance of involving our audience throughout the creative journey. As we transitioned into festival productions, the anticipation of audience members to share their thoughts and questions became palpable. However, festival logistics, notably the need to swiftly clear the space for subsequent performances, posed a challenge. Despite the brief window, our eager audience patiently waited, illuminating the fact that this story provoked a compelling desire for conversation.

Learning from this experience, we returned to the festival the following year ready with a proactive solution. We introduced CTC’s team of Producing Fellows who, immediately after each performance, engaged in one-on-one interviews with audience members- documenting with video or audio recordings. This real-time feedback became an invaluable tool for shaping the subsequent iterations of the play. Our key takeaway: the narrative resonated deeply, sparking a genuine need for dialogue.

Taking this lesson with us, we extended the conversation further when we toured the production to the Performing Arts Center at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. Here, we implemented a formal post-show talk-back, inviting local, female-identifying artists to lead discussions about the play's themes. The engagement exceeded our expectations, as audience members actively participated in meaningful dialogue with each other and the panel.

Yet, an unexpected twist occurred during these post-show discussions. The theater staff, recognizing the audience's enthusiasm for the dialogue, would gently ask us to wrap up after 40-45 minutes, even though the audience was not ready to leave. This unexpected yet heartening challenge became a testament to the hunger for discussion sparked by the play.

As we prepared for the NYC premiere at TheaterLab, we recognized the appetite for continued connection. Thus, Act 2: Women’s Voices, Women’s Choices was conceived. Facilitated by a CTC artist and featuring a rotating panel of female-identifying leaders, Act 2 provided a structured yet organic space for immediate post-show connections. This addition not only resonated with the creative team and audiences but also garnered critical acclaim.

In the words of Emily Cordes from Theater is Easy, reviewing the NYC premiere:

“The ‘second act,’ entitled ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Choices’ incorporates the audience through a hybrid panel discussion and extended talkback. As the show begs for further discourse, this segment forms a structured, yet organic, epilogue to what we have witnessed...Audience members, responding to the first act, reflected on such topics as body image, cross-generational feminism, and internalized misogyny. With additional guests ranging from directors and filmmakers to attorneys and psychologists, and viewers’ differing insights, I would be interested to see how these discussions might vary with each performance”

Learning to Play

In the realm of theatrical creation, our journey begins with play — a rich tapestry of experiential learning, embodied research, theatrical exploration, and audience engagement. As we navigate the intricate landscape of storytelling, we recognize that play is not just a precursor but a fundamental cornerstone that breathes life into our creative endeavors.

Embodied research compels us to dive deep into the sensorial and physical dimensions of our narratives, urging us to embrace the language of the body, emotions, and senses. Theatrical research, with its practical and hands-on approach, becomes our compass, guiding us through the intricate maze of staging, lighting, sound, and performance styles. Audience research, a vital thread in this tapestry, weaves the spectator into the very fabric of our creative process, transforming their experiences and perspectives into invaluable insights.

Our diverse toolkit, encompassing contemplative dance practices, developmental movement techniques, physical acting methodologies, somatics, experiential anatomy, and the viewpoints, reflects our commitment to inclusivity. These approaches serve as vessels for the multitude of voices, aesthetics, cultural expressions, and genres that come together to shape our narratives.

As we navigate through these immersive processes, we find ourselves surrounded by questions that spark curiosity, wonder, and revelation.

  • What worlds are we establishing?

  • How does it feel to inhabit these realms?

  • What is familiar, and what is new or surprising?

The journey of play, through embodied, theatrical, and audience research, becomes a continuous exploration, an unfolding narrative that shapes our stories and enriches our collective understanding. In each experiment, we discover the transformative power of play. It creates not just the conditions for magic but also the fertile ground for collaboration, innovation, and shared experiences.

In the world of theatrical storytelling, play is not just a means to an end; it is the essence that propels us forward, a continuous journey where each step is imbued with discovery, delight, and the potential for something truly magical.

Let the play continue, for within its rhythm, our stories come to life!


Up Next

Phase 2: Scoring, Sequencing & Scripting

  • Scoring: Notating Acting

  • Sequencing: Organizing Actions

  • Scripting: Crafting Words on a Page

“Words are spells in our mouths. My interest in the history of words—  where they came from, where they’re going— has a direct impact on my playwriting because, for me, language is a physical act.”

 — Suzan-Lori Parks “Elements of Style.” American Plays and Other Works. NYC. TCG 1995


Elevate your craft, amplify your vision, strengthen your leadership capacity – your creative odyssey awaits!

Our Developmental Pathway to Production provides a framework for you and your team to journey from idea through full production. Receive tools that will revolutionize your creative producing process!

Learn how to create your own Developmental Pathway to Production in our upcoming online workshop, part of our 2024 workshop series, Artists Supporting Artists. Upon workshop completion, you'll emerge:

  • Empowered with the skills to design a developmental pathway for production

  • Inspired to explore innovative activities with your audience

  • With newly acquired tools & resources to effectively lead a creative process

Explore insightful and applicable themes in each session!

Session 1: The 3 Phases of Development & Production (02/12)

Session 2: Activities with Your Audience (02/19)

Session 3: Resource Planning (02/26)

Designed for maximum flexibility, our workshops fit seamlessly into your bustling artist schedule. Whether live on Zoom or OnDemand, materials remain accessible for a year post-workshop. Full series participants enjoy extended access through 2025!

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