All Part of the Plan

All Part of the Plan

clybournefeature2Some playwrights avoid outlines at all costs. They may begin to write with a sketch of a plotline in mind, or a vague idea of the themes and conflicts they want to address, but where the play ultimately takes them is as much up to their characters as it is to them. Not so Bruce Norris, playwright of Clybourne Park. He’ll be the first to say that he prefers a more structured approach, where the machinery of the play is in place from the start, and provides the engine that drives the whole piece along. So it’s no surprise to learn that the structure of Clybourne Park (two acts set in the same house, fifty years apart), was in place just about as soon as he began to write. Where the play went from there, however, came as one big surprise, particularly to a playwright as big on control as Norris.

There was one unique thing about Clybourne Park from the get-go: it didn’t start with Steppenwolf. Most of Norris’ previous plays were written as commissions for the venerable Chicago theatre company, but Clybourne was undertaken of his own volition. There was still plenty of the company’s DNA in Clybourne, though, even if they hadn’t given the first push. Norris wrote the play with the Steppenwolf’s ensemble of actors in mind, and the very first reading of the play was held in one of the company’s rehearsal rooms, led by actor and director Amy Morton. The reading inspired a complete re-write of Act Two, which in that initial iteration was a nearly beat-for-beat duplicate of the first half of the play. The choice to mirror things so specifically had a certain mechanistic appeal in theory, but in practice it ended up killing all the surprise and momentum. Norris agreed it was too much, and he stripped the whole act down to the pegs and re-wrote it to make its associations to the rest of the play more subtle and free-form.

After the new draft was completed, Steppenwolf expressed interest, but Norris also began sending the script around to other theatres across the country. Getting one of the major players to bite on a more-or-less blind submission, even from a known quantity like Norris, can be difficult, but Clybourne saw lightning strike not once, but twice. Playwrights Horizons in New York and Woolly Mammoth in Washington, DC both jumped at the chance to produce the script, and Norris found himself preparing for two back-to-back, very high-profile productions in the 2010 season. When the New York run was a success, the Royal Court Theatre of London called, and the play then traveled to American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and, perhaps most appropriately, Steppenwolf in Chicago. Norris stayed heavily involved with all the production processes, leaving the script’s broad strokes the same but always tweaking and tailoring little moments to each individual audience base, and seeing the response of bigger and bigger houses with each iteration. The play accumulated an immense amount of momentum, built up in a surprisingly small period of time.

The biggest surprise of all, though, was the culmination: a Broadway run produced with the exact same cast and director as the original Playwrights Horizons production. After more than two years on the road, racking up awards and playing for audiences in different cities, states, and countries, Norris had the chance to bring the play back to its roots, with its original company, and infuse their performances with the history and energy of the productions that had already occurred. It was a fitting endpoint for a play concerned so heavily with time, and the way that things change or don’t change because of it. It might not have fit into a pre-ordained structure, but sometimes breaking the mold can be a good thing.

Walt McGough