Bare Knuckle Theatre: Playwright Chad Beckim on the Writing of LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE

Playwright Chad Beckim has been writing Lights Rise on Grace since 2007. Here he talks about why. And also what kinds of stories interest him.

LROGBi Jean Ngo in Azuka’s production of Lights Rise on Grace

Azuka: What is your mission statement as an artist? What kind of work excites you?

Chad: Bare knuckle theater. Theater with teeth and claws and heart. Theater that challenges and breaks you down and builds you up and changes the way you thought about the world (even if it’s a tiny bit) before the houselights darkened. Some examples are Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection, Stephen Adley Guirgis Our Lady of 121st Street and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. I’d always written privately for myself, but experiencing those pieces were the collective sparks that inspired my first attempts at writing.

I think my ideal theater is multicultural and multi-palette-ed and reflects the people and places and cultures and the struggle where I cut my teeth in NYC …Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem in NYC, East New York and LIC and the South Bronx for the kids I taught. And structurally, my favorite theater kind of shatters the traditional boundaries and shape of the kinds of theater we generally mass experience in school.

An example: I remember taking a group of Dominican students to see In the Heights and watching them delight in the play – they absolutely f*cking marveled at it and on the train ride home talked of nothing else. I realized it was quite possibly the first time they’d ever seen themselves, their neighborhood, their culture, reflected on the stage. And I’d like to think my mission statement simultaneously reflects what I saw on those kids’ faces that day and strives to put folks you might not normally see in the theater on the stage.

Azuka: Why did you write this play? What larger themes or ideas were you hoping the audience would connect to?

Chad: When I first started writing I tried to drown in new work, hitting up the library at Lincoln Center and borrowing a bookbag’s worth plays at a time. On one of those visits I snagged a copy of Dael Orlandersmith’s wonderful Yellowman and I literally read it three times straight on a bus ride trying to figure out how it worked, the entire time thinking, “This is just freaking magical and terrifying.” That was the impetus for Grace, I think – taking a stab at that fusion/explosion of the love story alongside racial and social politics.

Grace really did begin as a more traditional love story, but quickly grew into something else (I know when Woolly Mammoth got their hands on it, they suggested that this was what appealed to them as well.) I kept trying to steer it back to the initial concept but the shape and structure and universe of the play kept shifting and morphing into something else, resulting in what you now have on your stage.

There’s a reason why folks still love Romeo and Juliet. That sense of impossible, illogical love still resonates, especially in the increasingly borderless world we (esp. younger generations) now inhabit. One of the starting points was, “What might that look like now?” This was a very rough starting point for this play (coupled with the inherent brutality of sex and sexuality) that spiraled into something bigger and all encompassing.

Azuka: Why did you ultimately decide to portray the characters in the play the way that you did?

Chad: Here’s the thing about writing (at least from my experience, I’m sure it differs for other people): As much as you’re writing them, they’re working you. You can’t force a play to take the shape you want it to. You can’t write if they’re not talking –for me, the characters talk and they tell you a story and that’s the story you work with. I don’t really work from an outline, and when I think back on the genesis of Grace, this is the way these characters spoke to me; this is their collective universe and their collective truths.

Azuka: Why is it important to you to write diverse characters? How you do feel about writing about these characters from an outsider perspective? What do you do to make sure you are respecting the lived experiences of people with different backgrounds than you without undermining what the play wants to be?

Chad: Because for my formative years in New York City, I was Grace/Large/Riece. I was the outsider, the “other.” My first two years I lived with a Dominican family in Washington Heights – 10 of us to a 3-bedroom apartment. I shared a room with 2 grown men and had a curfew and was treated as less an adult than a teenager, the only white face in an almost entirely Dominican-American neighborhood (my nickname was “blanquito” to the people on my block). It was an amazing and frightening and eye opening and altogether wonderful experience.

From there I moved to Spanish Harlem and lived with an African American family in East River Houses, a housing development off FDR Drive and First Avenue. My family basically told me what streets I would/wouldn’t be safe on, who to trust and who would take care of me, who to steer clear of. I built relationships and connections and a family that forever shaped me.

And as a 10 year veteran Teaching Artist in the NYC public school system, the place where I felt most at home, where I felt like I was changing lives and emboldening confidence and making the biggest impact (big ups to The Leadership Program in NYC) has consistently been in those schools working with kids who don’t look like I do or come from backgrounds that I did.

This is why I write what I write – and it’s also why some might suggest I’m encroaching on territory where I shouldn’t (particularly when considering I grew up in Maine, the whitest state in the union). But I’m (hopefully) writing something that strives to connect us all on a human level, and I think the last thing the world needs is another straight white guy writing more straight white guy plays. I’m fascinated by the interplay (collision?) between race and culture and class and gender and sexuality, by the way our world looks now and will look in years to come, and in trying to provide voices for the characters I haven’t seen represented on stage, however successful (or not!) those attempts might be.

And I think as long as you’re honest and human and respectful and are operating from a place of truth and humanity and fundamental decency, those stories are safe to tell, to try to tell. If it’s not always a challenge and a struggle and a truly worthwhile pursuit, what’s the point?


Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose writing credits include …a matter of choice, `nami (which received its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles in October, 2007), Lights Rise on Grace (Winner, Outstanding Play, 2007 NY Int’l. Fringe Festival; Finalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award; Finalist for Ojai Playwrights’ Conference), The Main(e) Play (Semi-Finalist, The O’Neill Festival), That Men Do (Member of The Lark’s 2009 “Playwright’s Week” and Naked Angels “Out Loud” Series), Mercy and most recently the critically and audience acclaimed After. He has also authored a number of shorts and one-acts, including The Fluffer and Marvel Super Hero Squad (both produced at Ars Nova), Tha Bess Shit, Alexander Pays a Visit, Blac(c)ident, and Last First Kiss, which was adapted into a Columbia Grad film and produced in July, 2008. Mr. Beckhim holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College’s Program, and in July of 2007 was named one of “50 Playwrights to Watch” by the Dramatists Guild. His work has been published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Smith & Krauss, and in the Plays and Playwrights 2007 collection by NYTE. He is a proud member of Ars Nova’s acclaimed “Play Group,” and is currently finishing an original pilot script entitled “The Fam.” Mr. Beckim is a co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions.

Diary of a Playwright: Doug Williams tracks his thoughts as he prepares for his first professional production

By Douglas Williams

Douglas, the playwright of MOON CAVE, kept this diary of his writing adventures during the rehearsal. At this point, Doug had already been working on this play on his own and with Azuka for about a year and a half!

1/15/15

Here we go! Last night our stage manager, Lauren, sent out our rehearsal schedule for MOON CAVE. So official. I put the calendar up in my cubicle at work [I work fulltime in the office of a beer wholesaler] and made note of all the rehearsals I’d be able to attend — it’s a little more than half spread out over the entire three weeks. Most of the time I’ll be leaving straight from my day job and showing up halfway through. Hopefully traffic isn’t too much of an issue.

1/27/15

Just got back from Azuka where we read the most recent draft of the play We don’t start rehearsal until February 10th, but I’m really trying to get the play as close to finished as possible before we officially start. After hearing it again tonight, I am feeling great which is sort of unexpected. Usually when I leave readings I’m all depressed about how much work I have left to do. Instead I feel like we’re really close. Excited to get into rehearsals in a few weeks.

Reading MOON CAVE at an early rehearsal.

2/9/15

Tomorrow is our first rehearsal and whooooooa. My stomach is doing somersaults. I’m trying to anticipate what it’s going to be like working in a way that is completely new to me. Usually I’m in a room by myself working on a play. I can write something down and say “Okay that’s weird but I’ll worry about it later” but now it’s crunch-time. I hope I’m able to still get good writing done while attending rehearsals and working full time. Luckily Kevin [Glaccum] put together a kickass team to put this play together with me.

I haven’t done a ton of work on the play since our last ready. I sent everyone the rehearsal draft this morning. Took off work tomorrow so I can be there for the entire day.

Rehearsal Draft: 92 Pages

2/11/15

We’re officially off and running! Yesterday was our first rehearsal. We got a look at Colin [McIlvaine]’s set design (which was awesome), at Katherine [Fritz]’s costumes (which were equally as awesome) and started work on the play. I feel really lucky to start rehearsals having a director and actors who – because we’ve had more than one developmental reading — are already really familiar with the play. I know that’s a unique spot to be in as a playwright. There’s a shorthand already there and ideas about the play and performances are already pretty detailed.

After we wrapped for the day I sped home, cracked a beer and got to work cleaning up the places where I saw problems. After about two hours I had 35 new pages for today’s rehearsal – without even touching the ending. I pushed off meetings I had scheduled to film and edit a video for Orbiter 3 (not sure why I thought I would have time to do both in one day).

New Pages: 35

2/17/15

The cast is unbelievable! The more I’ve been able to sit in on rehearsals the more I understand that not everything, or even most things, need to be fixed with more writing. Questions that Taysha [Canales] and Kevin [Meehan] have with the text do not mean I have to go home and fix it. That’s just how we discover what the play is about. Still, I have been touching up things here and there. Mostly clarifying or just cutting things that have already been established.

We have these four dream-like scenes that occur in Richard’s head. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to have those come across. Kevin [Glaccum] thinks what might be best is to wait for a stumble through so I can see it in context, but on the whole the big lesson I’ve learned thus far is: LESS IS MORE. I need to step back and let everyone else do their job.

That being said — New Pages: 25

Rehearsing MOON CAVE: Kevin Meehan, Taysha Canales, and Kevin Glaccum.

2/18/15

I brought my laptop to work today so I can write during downtime. I have some pages to get ready for rehearsal tonight. 15 days to our first preview and we’re starting to freeze scenes. I haven’t been to rehearsal for a few days but Kevin called me last night to go over questions that have been coming up. Got some really great notes. Going to do my best to address them now so I can have the script updated for tonight.

New Pages: 20

2/19/15

Yesterday I was really struggling to churn out new pages. I showed up to rehearsal a little depressed and worried that I might not be able to get the play where it needs to be. Then we did a stumble through and I was blown away. Kevin and the actors have been doing so much great work. Seeing the play on its feet really was incredible. I feel totally energized. The first 50 to 60 pages of the play actually feel really tight – I don’t think I’ll be making huge changes to those scenes from here on out. But the last two scenes definitely need some focus. I’m starting to feel the pressure but maybe that’s a good thing.

New Pages: 0 – Took the night off!

2/21/15

It’s Saturday so I got to be at rehearsal the entire day. It worked out because we had our designer run today. In a way, our designers are the first audience we’ve had for the play. Their presence really seemed to electrify the actors and clarified the story in a lot of ways. When we finished the run, Nick Kourtides, our sound designer, got out his equipment to record some whispering that occurs throughout the play.

We needed dialogue that isn’t currently in the play so it wouldn’t give away things that happen later. So I went into my email and pulled up the first draft of FF, which was written over a year ago. We pulled a scene from the end and had Kevin [Meehan] read and record that.

Everything is really coming together, but I still have things I need to clean up (and also need to take a hard look at the ending). It’s funny reading my old entries where I was pretty sure the play was almost there after the reading we did on the 27th. I thought I knew exactly what this play was about before rehearsal, but seeing it over and over taught me a lot. Still a ways to go…

New Pages: 21

photo (2)2/25/15

All that’s left is the ending. I woke up early yesterday to sift through the notes I got last rehearsal. I emailed the new pages, and later spoke to Kevin and Sally about how they sounded in rehearsal (I couldn’t make it because of work). I drove the 45 minutes back to my apartment with the radio off so I could absorb all their thoughts. When I got home I talked to my girlfriend Martha about what I had come up with and sat down to write.
I’m at work now. In the next few hours I will be finishing the new pages and send them in before rehearsal starts today at 4 PM. I’ll get to rehearsal at 7 PM — hear them out loud, get notes, go home and repeat the process. I’m hoping that by the end of rehearsal tomorrow the entire play is pretty much frozen. Tech is this weekend and previews are a week away. Time to finish the damn thing.

New Pages: 12

2/27/15

That’s it. I just emailed over my last new pages for MOON CAVE. Tech starts tomorrow so, besides small line changes that might occur, the play is finished. Half of me is really relieved and the other half is a little uneasy. As long as you’re in the rewriting process you always have the safety net of “Well, I’ll get it to where it needs to be at some point.” Not anymore. Luckily we have an amazing team that is bringing this thing to life. Seriously, Kevin’s direction and the work Taysha and Kevin have been doing have made my life so much easier. They’re transforming my words into something so much better than could have anticipated. I can’t wait to the finished product.

New Pages: 5
Final Draft: 84 Pages

Originally Posted by Phindie: http://phindie.com/diary-of-a-playwright-doug-williams-tracks-his-thoughts-as-he-prepares-for-his-first-professional-production/

Meet Barrymore-Nominated Set Designer Dirk Durossette

My name is Tamanya Garza and I am a freelance director and producer here in Philadelphia as well as a the President of the Board of Directors for Azuka Theatre. I recently had the opportunity to spend a few minutes inside of the brain of Dirk Durossette our fantastic (and recently Barrymore nominated) set designer for THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE.

Tamanya: First, tell me a bit about the shows you have designed for Azuka and the elements you liked most about the shows you have designed with us.

Dirk: I have designed five shows for Azuka over the past seven years and I’ve worked both with Kevin and Allison. Two considerate and talented personalities who really know how to work with a designer.  Every show has been very different.  Their seasons showcase a diverse choice of plays that have allowed me the chance to really explore the visuals and the worlds of some very interesting stories.  Every show I’ve worked on at Azuka has been a very gratifying experience and I’ve always been treated like an artist and not just an artisan.  They also put together great teams of designers who work very closely worth one another.  I am very proud of every show I’ve done at Azuka.

Tamanya: What was it about last season’s Skin & Bone script that most piqued your interest?  What was most challenging?

Dirk: SKIN & BONE was a new play and I love working on new plays.  It was funny, heartbreaking and surprising. After reading it, I had definite ideas immediately.  I knew the characters needed to be surrounded by something that really spoke to their world views.

Tamanya: While we’re on the topic of reading a script, what are the steps of your personal process when turning a script into a design?

Dirk: When I first approach a script, I rely on the characters to tell me what the world of the play needs.  What they say about where they are, their attitudes towards one another, and how they move around the space.  Even if they say nothing directly about the space they are in, their words and actions still produce visual clues for me.  It can be very subjective and intuitive obviously. I try to hold off on research, and quickly sketch, in pencil, my initial impulses.  Then I get into the research and problem solving.  I like to work big and general then whittle down to the specifics.

Tamanya: Considering that there are so many memorable elements of the WATSON design which one are you most looking forward seeing onstage and why?

Dirk: My hope for the WATSON design is that it will feel very specific to many different places while serving as a visual anchor for the overall arc of the story line.  I hope it feels like a place in motion.  I’ve used forced perspective to create a sense of depth and movement.  The hints of train station architecture, contrasted against warm interior wood tones hopefully will feel natural and appropriate.

Tamanya: Congratulations on the nomination for your exciting work on SKIN & BONE. How does it feel to get that call that you’ve been nominated?

Dirk: It feels good to be nominated and that people were affected by the play. I really paid attention to details on this one and Jaqueline Goldfinger, the playwright, created characters that really helped me shape the room and choose textures and colors. Allison and I worked very closely and and her guidance was very helpful. It was the first time I had designed in that space and that always makes me feel a little nervous. And while it may seem cliche, this really was a team effort.  The work of the lighting, costume,and sound designers along with the scenic artists, carpenters, and electricians all has to coalesce to make the production what it is.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Anna Zaida Szapiro

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Anna Zaida Szapiro, who plays Sherry, responded. 
 
1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again? 
My gut says A League of Their Own. It isn’t perfect (All-The-Way May? definitely did not understand that as a small child), but it’s a standby for sure. Don’t drop the ball, Dottie, don’t do it!
 
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why? 
Maverick. Just kidding. 
 
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3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up? 
Blast Robyn. And Roberta Flack. And Jewel. What?
 
4) Describe your first job.
Oh man. I definitely spent a summer chauffeuring this amazing 9-year-old whose speech impediment made him speak with a British accent. Adorable. We played a lot of Stratego and Super Mario Kart. First payroll job? Office clerk in a gynecologist’s office. Let’s just say I never went back to that doctor again. Ever. 
 
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
I consider house cats wild animals, so yes. It went horribly.

Anna is a Philadelphia-based actor and devised theatre artist. Since moving to Philly in 2011, she has collaborated as a performer/creator in original works by companies including No Face Performance Group (From the Swamp to the Stars, PIFA), Hybridge Arts Collective (The Travelers), and Fur Collective (Scout, Philly Fringe). Other recent credits include The Renegade Company, New Paradise Laboratories, and The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Anna holds a BA in Art History from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute. Up next: Mixed Connections and Other Curiosities at Simpatico Theatre Project.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Trevor Fayle

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Trevor Fayle, who plays Zach (with a Z), responded. 

1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again?
I could watch The Empire Strikes back twice a day if given the chance.  Because I am Trevor Fayle, King of the Nerds.
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why?
I can’t say I much Identify with any of them, but if I had to pick one I’d say Kenny Loggins, because I too have a fondness for zones of a dangerous nature.
3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up (or when you feel down)? 
 Me after a bad breakup is not a pretty sight.  I watch a lot of anime, blast linkin park like it’s 2005, and develop a healthy love for the acoustic guitar.
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4) Describe your first job.
My first job was teaching kids how to ski.  Pizza! French fry!
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
 For sure.  I grew up in the untamed wilderness of western Massachusetts.  I have a lot of stories about bears, deer, moose and geese.  Believe it or not the latter involves the most danger.

This will be Trevor’s second show with Azuka, and first one on the Azuka stage! He could not be happier to be here working on the production of Tigers Be Still! Previous credits most recently include Emma at the Lantern and Owners with Inversion Theatre Co.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Felicia Leicht

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Felicia Leicht, who plays Grace, responded. 
1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again?
There are a bunch.  Ones that I have watched countless times? Jaws, Empire Strikes Back, Moonstruck, The Iron Giant, just to name a few.  But if we’re going with guilty pleasure 80s romantic movie, I’d have to say: Dirty Dancing.Image
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why?
I’d have to say Carole (the Meg Ryan character).  She has nothing to do with the flying, and she loves Goose (who is by far my favorite character in the movie.)
3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up (or when you feel down)? 
Depends on the type of heartbreak.  In some cases, I haven’t wanted to eat a thing, and just want to watch fluffy, brain candy TV and movies to distract myself.  But that’s more of the exception.  My usual pick-me-up is the fluffy viewing material combined with eating all my favorite foods: spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate, etc.  And soup.  I always find soup comforting.
4) Describe your first job.
My first job was babysitting, and my first paid gig involved caring for a three year old and a one year old from 6:30pm until one in the morning, when I was only twelve years old.  I couldn’t believe it.  I knew myself to be fairly responsible for a twelve year old, but I still couldn’t fathom how parents could possibly entrust their two small children to someone so young, well into the middle of the night.
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
I can’t really say that I have.  I always enjoyed the zoo as a kid, but was not much hiking, camping, or generally venturing out into the wild.  The beach and the ocean have always been my preferred type of nature.  The closest experience I have is probably having a school of dolphins swim right past me, less than ten feet away, while I was swimming down the shore.  I just wish one of them had taken me for a ride.
Felicia is a recent graduate of Villanova University’s Graduate Theater program where she was an acting scholar and a recipient of the Brian G. Morgan Award. She has performed regionally with Philadelphia Artists Collective, Shakespeare in Clark Park, Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, Plays and Players, and the National Constitution Center among others, and has also co-created and performed original works for the Philadelphia Live Arts, Philly Fringe, and Berkshire Fringe Festivals. Next up, she will be appearing in Revolution Shakespeare’s Five Kings.

5 Questions Inspired By Tigers Be Still: Jared Michael Delaney

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. First up, Jared Michael Delaney, who plays Joseph.
1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again?
The Thing (the John Carpenter version). Don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ve seen it a million times and love it every time.
2) Which Top Gun character do you most identify with and why?
I don’t know if I identify with him exactly, but I like Viper (played by Tom Skerritt, probably because I like Tom Skerritt as an actor so much.)  And you cannot deny the Iceman.
3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up (or when you feel down)?
The saddest of sad songs and the angriest of angry songs.
4) Describe your first job
My first job was washing dishes at a Denny’s-like diner. It was a living hell, particularly on Sundays, when it was the post-church senior citizen discount brunch rush. But we listened to Rock 107, The Mountain, in the kitchen, so I received a thorough education in Bad Company, Foreigner and other mid-late 70s bands that sucked. So call that a win.
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
I once encountered a wild California Brown Bear in Lake Tahoe in a hotel parking lot around 1am. It was the size of a Volkswagon and as he shuffled across the parking lot, he seemed to turn towards me, give an indifferent shrug and continue on his way. I learned the next morning that this particular bear came down from the mountains every night to forage through the trash. The hotel owners told me they used to chain lock the garbage cans, but the bear would just break the locks. So they stopped locking them. Let’s repeat that: the bear used to BREAK THE STEEL LOCKS, cause he could. So I, in turn, am grateful for his indifference on that evening.
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Image: Roberta Olenick/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Jared is the Associate Artistic Director of Inis Nua Theatre Company and co-founder of Revolution Shakespeare. As an actor, he has worked regionally with the Folger Theater, Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Walnut Street Theatre, Sierra Rep. Theater, River Valley Rep., Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Lantern Theater, Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, the Theatre at Monmouth and Azuka Theatre, among others. He has twice been nominated for “Best Ensemble” at Philly’s Barrymore Awards (winning once). As a playwright, he has had three short plays produced as part of the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. The Hand of Gaul, his first full-length play, was produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company in April 2013