Toward a More Intelligent and Compassionate Theatre

The Accomplishment of Santa Fe Playwright Bronwen Denton-Davis

Date August 26, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Performing Arts

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Prior to our telephone discussion of July 2, 2010, Bronwen Denton-Davis (BDD) sent me the following e-mail in which she stated how our interview might develop:

Jeff: So, Bronwen, why theatre? Why be a playwright?

BDD: Masochism? I think it's genetic.

Jeff: Is your family involved in theatre?

BDD: Only when I force them.

Jeff: What do you see as the future of theatre?

BDD: Twitter. Tweeted plays shared between house-bound tweeters. 2 minutes tops.

Jeff: You write both for theatre and film. What's the difference?

BDD: Volume. In film they turn up the volume. Surround Sound gets attention.

Jeff: You sound a bit cynical.

BDD: A bit?

I

Using the above missive as a prologue, Bronwen described her very early interest in drama:  She grew up near Dana Point (California).  Her Cornish-Welsh parents were actors in university.  They raised her on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” and her mother began taking her to live theatre at the age of five:  “I was exposed to quite a lot of truly exceptional work at a very early age.”  Early viewing included Man of La Mancha and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.  London theatre was added to the bill when the family visited the United Kingdom to see relatives: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  That was the one.  That did it.”  Bronwen was hooked: “I wanted to be part of this tribe.”

At fifteen in a production of My Infanta, Bronwen learned first-hand the perils of acting: “I played a Spanish princess bullied by her governess.  However, the actor playing the bully never learned the stage slap.  She totally walloped me, and I went clear across the stage.  That should have ended all interest.”   Despite the bruises, Bronwen, nonetheless, continued to write and act throughout her youth.

In her twenties, Bronwen took a scene study class from Gordon Hunt (the father of Helen Hunt).  She wrote a scene for an actress friend and “we just put it up.”  Though reticent about admitting the work was hers, Bronwen was pleased when Hunt, after finding out she was the author of the scene, said simply: “Bring more.”

The result was, in essence, the creation of a lab for Bronwen’s dramatic writing: “I would ask class members whose work I loved ‘Who would you like to be?’ and ‘Who would you like to be cast as?’”  Bronwen was gaining confidence in creating ten-minute scenes and was meeting a dual goal:  “If you can create an arc in ten, you can do so in 20/30/60/120 minutes.”

Jeff:  And that’s how you learned to write?

Bronwen:  I was sooooooooooo lucky.

While fulfilling her classmates’ fantasies, Bronwen was fulfilling a very big story-telling need in her.  The process taught her much about writing and provided her with an analogy that defines her basic perception of the theatre to this day: “Writing for the theatre is exactly like creating music.  You are absolutely composing duets, quartets, even symphonies with language, emotion and tempo”

Bronwen made a major move from acting to writing as the result of an epiphany she had while studying in Los Angeles: “A very young, very beautiful actress came into class; her success made it clear that acting was never going to be about character and depth but about how people looked.  The intense emphasis on appearance sounded [for the character actress] a very loud bell.  Friends who were trained in the theater were losing jobs to models.  As a short, round female Celt, I realized that I needed to become a better writer….and get out of town.”

II

In 1991, Bronwen moved to Santa Fe.  Her “calling card” to Santa Fe was her one-woman show, Crowned Heads—a drama built on the intimate views of all of Henry VIII’s wives played out on a set that was a chessboard.  However, Bronwen was having a terrible time renting a space until she met Nicholas Ballas of the Santa Fe Actors Theatre: “Nick was great to me.  He was welcoming and had no problem with a new-to-town talent offering original work.” 

Bronwen had a relatively easy entry into the Santa Fe theatre community: “The early Nineties was a fertile time for theatre in Santa Fe—both established and guerilla.” She soon met Karen Grassley (who played the mother on The Little House on the Prairie) and Anthony Whitman who were running the Resource Theater:  “They invited me to play.”  Bronwen next helped create the Playwrights Lab to emphasize new original works:  “I was being handed a plum opportunity to not only new work but to bring it to production with what ultimately became The Santa Fe Theatre Company.”  Bronwen and Judith Joseph were Co-Artistic Directors.

From 1991 to 2004, Bronwen had sixteen of her works produced in Santa Fe with a variety of different theatre companies:  “I think the pieces people remember most are The Ferry Back, A Portrait of Mary Cassatt, Angels in Waiting, String of Pearls, and The Book of Wren.” 

As the Resource Theater morphed into Santa Fe Theater Company (SFTC), Bronwen pressed for the focus to be on new plays:  “No one else was doing this and having that as our focus filled a need that fed the community and excited me.”

The Playwrights’ Lab was founded to “be a nurturing nest” while providing an incubation period for the dramatist.  Working with playwrights David Dolcino, Anthony Whitman, Jeanette Boyer, Leslie Dillen and actors Robert Nott, Jonathan Richards, and Karen Leigh, Bronwen tried to provide a safe haven at the beginning of works for the authors.  The Playwrights did readings only when the playwright felt comfortable. The playwrights would work with other writers and actors.  If the reading went well, the work would be promoted into full production with either the Santa Fe Theater Company or with a company the playwright felt close to:  “We didn’t own the authors.  We supported them and tried to give them a boost.”  What led to the demise of SFTC and SFPL was the sad reality too many theatre groups in the City Different experience: “There was no fixed venue and that ultimately did us in.”

III

Bronwen Denton-Davis has continued to write and have her plays produced for the past fifteen years.  In 1996, she became the first playwright to have three of her plays produced in a single season at the Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival: “Freesailing (a mini-Nicholas Nickleby), The Ferry Back, and The Jewel:  “That gave me a foot up.”  Ironically, however, that season brought her to the attention of film people as did the staunch support of Lisa Fitzgerald, her literary manager.  Bronwen continued to have her plays produced—The Book of Wren (1997) during her two-year playwright-in-residency at Santa Fe’s Theaterwork and Valentine Fratti (1998) at the Miranda Theater in New York City.  (This play won the season’s Backstage Theater Award for the Best New Play.)  Equally important, she also began her career writing for film:  “It’s a rather large adventure.”

While Bronwen enjoys writing for the medium, she finds the industry disappointing. “Well, I was naïve.  I had had so much influence over the way my plays were interpreted I simply wasn’t prepared for the way the film industry views writers.  It uses them like Kleenex.”

Although she entered the industry at a fairly high level, her experience was ultimately painful:  “I would write great scripts that would excite people who would then want me to fit them into studio formulas.  Movies are a director’s medium…. a star’s medium.  Unless you are the writer/director with massive backing, you pretty much kiss your work good-bye.”  There were “wonderful exceptions.”  There were directors and actors who supported her work and her vision. But although she was engaged to write five screenplays, all have yet to be filmed:  “My film scripts were optioned and all had good beginnings but ultimately deals fell apart.  Someone sneezes and the project folds.  I met wonderfully talented people, but they were not in control of financing.  They were not the Green-Light Gods.”  Finally, Bronwen’s major theme is a tough sell in the current industry climate: “Nothing blows up or roars by.  My stories have the same tenor and focus—compassion.”

IV

When writing for the theater, Bronwen endeavors to establish a “distinct tempo for intimate, bright, illuminating stories that create a synergy between the performers and the audience.”  She sees her job as a dramatist as getting people out of their houses and making it worth their while with humanizing and encouraging tales:  “Our society has become so isolated and fearful.  One doesn’t need to leave one’s house to be entertained.  To encourage people to attend live performances,  You need to get very clear on how to tell layered, deep stories that won’t frighten away audiences that are used to rather predictable fare  And you’d better have a comfortable space with a good seat.”

In the past decade, Bronwen has sent her plays out of town to New York and Los Angeles, as does her friend and fellow Santa Fe playwright Dianna A. Lewis.  However, Bronwen has also continued to pursue local options.  Along with Ms. Lewis, Catherine Donavon and Catherine Owens, she approached the Santa Fe Playhouse about doing original works.  The resulting benefit performances led to the establishment of the wildly popular “Benchwarmers” series in which original work is read and produced each year.

Bronwen began sending out her work to Paula d’Allessandris’s Brit/Yank-focused Mind the Gap Theatre (MTG) through the auspices of local actor and friend Holly Hamilton who had performed in the 2004 production of her “The String of Pearls.”  When Holly became involved with MTG in New York, she encouraged Bronwen to submit work and MTG began producing it:  “It’s a perfect example of how theater people inspire and support one another.”

Jeff:  So who are your favorite playwrights?  Who inspired you?

BDD:  Oh, gosh.  Ok.  Christopher Fry, Tina Howe, Brian Friel, Tom Stoppard and Will.

Jeff:  Screenwriters?

BDD:  John Sayles and Horton Foote.

Jeff:  Anyone else?

BDD:  Don’t get me started.

V

Bronwen was generous enough to share with me her usual writing and directorial processes:  “Having been an actor first, I’d read and performed terrific plays, classic and new.  I love the musicality of great writers.”  When asked about her writing process, Bronwen chuckled:  “I think of play writing as some kind of controlled schizophrenia.  I’ll often hear a character ask a question.  Then another character will answer.  This becomes the nugget of a story, and I wait to see if it becomes a conversation.  I listen for bass and treble clefs.”

In discussing her directing, Bronwen cited playwright David Mamet who recently stated that directors are “completely useless”: “98% of good directing is getting the correct cast.  The director supports the play and all the good instincts of the actors.”  Bronwen again invokes her music analogy to describe the function of a theatrical director: “Directors are musical conductors who support the tenor and tempo in order for the actors to bring about their inherent and intuitive graces.  The director guides the cast members to play their best riffs.”

As for play topics, Bronwen is interested in the serendipitous nature of life itself: She is drawn to stories of how people meet by fate or luck and find themselves in situations they might never imagined.   As the director of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man and as a director in general, Bronwen feels the questions to be addressed are always “How will people deal with one another? and How do they find common ground?”

Furthermore, Bronwen finds people endlessly complicated—both consciously and unconsciously:  “Most are afraid that they won’t get what they want or that they won’t be accepted or welcomed.  That angst is theater.”  As a director, Bronwen desires to “surprise” the audience out of their complacency and comfort zone: “I don’t want to trick an audience but seduce them really.  I like to take something that looks and sounds familiar and touch upon true feelings in a unique way.  I don’t try to tie things up in a bow, but I do wish to leave the audience with some hope.”

Jeff:  So why do you think theater struggles so in Santa Fe?  Does it struggle?

BDD:  We don’t have the time.  No.  Seriously.  That would take hours.

VI

Jeff:  Well, then, what are you working on now?

BDD:  Weight Watchers.  It’s good to write when you are hungry.  Carrots are great food for thought.  I’m transposing a screenplay into fiction and working on a new play.

Jeff:  Anything you want to share?

BDD:  I like all the characters.

When asked to comment on why she writes for the theater at a time of declining financial opportunities and when dramatists “have slipped below poets on the totem pole of valued professions,” Bronwen points to her Celtic storytelling genes:
“I can't help but hope. I'm a hoper. Theatre is changing with our times and our level of patience. More and more playwrights are creating short pieces for an evening’s variety. Others are still writing full plays but are interweaving other mediums to hold the attention of a techno wonder-wise audience. [The process is] like marrying Cirque de Soleil to Lear.” Seriously, Bronwen posits “It’s a dark world at the moment and it’s essential that people realize they are capable of influencing that world in a positive way.  I’m interested in promoting humor, romance, language and care.  [I compose] fable pieces that encourage people to extend themselves to one another.  The challenge is creating a story that appears simple but which provokes deep thought. We used to perform such stories round a fire with great passion. It was enchanting. I miss enchanting. There was quality. I miss quality too.” Ultimately, Bronwen evaluates a play’s success by the audience’s investment in the story: “Leaning in, watching and listening intently…Oh I love when that happens!”  What trumps all for Bronwen Denton-Davis is hope: “For me, there must always be light at the end of the tunnel….at least a candle.”

Jeff:  Right! Done.

BDD:  Did we cover it?

Jeff:  I believe so.

BDD:  Not too “mememememe’?

Jeff:  I’ll let you know.

BDD:  Take out some “me’s” please.

Jeff:  Okay….Your favorite line from your favorite play?

BDD:  “One day I shall burst my bud of calm and blossom into hysteria.”  Christopher Fry—    “The Lady’s Not for Burning”

Jeff:  Well, she makes a lovely light.

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