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Theater is magical for Contemporary American Theater Festival playwright

June 30, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Playwright Bess Wohl watches actors Jason Manuel Olazabal during the first rehearsal reading of Barcelona in early June at Shepherd University. Wohls play, Barcelona will have its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival.
By Seth Freeman

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Bess Wohl's young eyes were wide in wonder when she first stepped inside a Broadway theater to watch Sandy Duncan fly over the audience as Peter Pan.

She can remember the lights going down at the start of the play  —  "a moment of utter potential and excitement about what was about to come."

There were enchanting characters, colorful sets and a tune or two that had her humming.

There also was a sprinkling of fairy dust that must have been real.

Because not only did it provide a magical affect to the performance, it transformed Wohl's life.

The theater would become her passion.

Wohl has come a long way from the 4-year-old who was enthralled with the tale of the boy who never grew up.

She is an accomplished actress, who has appeared in such movies as "Flightplan" and "Must Love Dogs" and has had roles on television in "CSI: N.Y.," "Bones," "Cold Case" and "Ghost Whisperer."

But she also has found a niche in writing.

She is the playwright of "Cats Talk Back," which was the winner of the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival; has developed pilots for both network and cable TV; and her original screenplay, "IN," was on the Black List — Hollywood's most liked unproduced scripts.

Recently, her play, "Touched," was produced at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and other work has been seen at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theater.

Locally, Wohl will premiere her new play, "Barcelona," at the 2012 Contemporary American Theater Festival, which runs from Wednesday, July 4, through Sunday, July 29, at Shepherd University. 

This is the 22nd season for CATF — a four-week event that features 94 performances of five plays in rotating repertory, as well as free lectures, stage readings, panel discussions and an art exhibition.

This year's festival includes two world premieres — including Wohl's "Barcelona."

Wohl doesn't remember the exact moment when she knew theater would be a part of her future.

"But growing up in New York City, my parents would occasionally take me to Broadway musicals and plays and I always loved them," she said. "I would come home and re-enact the entire thing in my bedroom."

Wohl said she enjoyed performing in school and church productions — so much so, that when she attended Harvard University she became involved in the school's drama clubs.

After graduating from Harvard magna cum laude with a degree in English, "I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do," she said, "so I took a bunch of random jobs but always stayed very involved in theater. Finally, I decided to make it a career when I applied to Yale School of Drama. I actually went to Yale to study acting, but ended up writing plays while I was an acting student there and found my path as a playwright."

Wohl said her mother is a writer "so I was always exposed to writers and literature from a very young age. But I didn't really consider writing as a career until, ironically, I was in graduate school pursing acting. I guess I've always been a bit of a contrarian. I started writing plays for my classmates to perform at Yale's student-run Cabaret space. One of the plays I wrote ended up going to New York as part of the Fringe Festival and that exposure led to writing agents and the idea that I might possibly be a writer."

Wohl said there are so many aspects of theater that appeal to her "but I think, above all, it's the experience of gathering in a room with other people and sharing in the act of witnessing a tale unfold. There is something about that act that is very ancient and primal. And, I especially love live theater because I always feel that I'm witnessing something that will only happen one time in this exact way.

"Watching great acting to me is like watching a tightrope walker stay aloft — absolutely mesmerizing," she added. "I also love the sense of escape from every day life. Everything is heightened and, for that brief two hours or so in the theater, I get to enter another world."

Wohl said she has many theatrical heroes in both playwrights and actors.

"But, at the risk of being overly obvious," she shared, "my biggest hero of the theater is Shakespeare. I studied the complete works in college and learned so much about character, psychology, language and what makes great drama. When I think that one man created so much brilliant work, it defies comprehension."

As a playwright, Wohl understands the importance of having a stage for new work, where it can be presented, appreciated and fine-tuned.

That's why, she said, "the experience of being at the Contemporary American Theater Festival is utterly invaluable. (CATF founder and producing director) Ed Herendeen's willingness to take leaps of faith on new work is so brave and so rare in the American theater today."

Wohl's "Barcelona" was inspired by a short story written by her mother.

"When I read her story, I loved it and asked her if I could play around with it as a piece of theater," Wohl explained. "She was generous enough to say 'yes,' and I started working on it. As I wrote, the story morphed and changed a lot, especially in its plot and the ending — which I'm still playing with — but I've tried very hard to remain true to the voices of the characters who drew me into this world. That's what's most interesting to me."

Wohl said the play begins as a sexy, one-night stand between a young American tourist and an older Spanish man in a tiny apartment in Barcelona. Over the course of the night, the personal and political intertwine and the characters' true motivations are revealed.

"I don't want to say too much and give it away, but I hope the play will be surprising, scary and will ask larger questions about our role and responsibility in the world as both Americans and, simply, as human beings," she said.

"Barcelona" is produced as part of a rolling world premiere agreement between CATF and People's Light & Theatre in Malvern, Pa.

Up until now "it's only existed as words on a page and the secret little movie playing in my mind," Wohl said. "Seeing a play up on its feet in rehearsals, I'm learning so many things about what I've written.  I'm learning about the characters from our incredible actors — Anne Marie Nest and Jason Manuel Olazabal  — as they embody their parts, ask me questions and point out things in the play that I didn't even know were there."

Wohl said director Chuck Morey has further shaped the story, "adding so many powerful nonverbal moments and pieces of staging, creating an entire new dimension to the world I had imagined."

The next important step, she said, will be seeing how the audience takes in the story, which can also be a learning experience.

Because the play contains strong language and adult situations, it is for mature audiences only.

While juggling a busy schedule of acting and writing, Wohl said she sets aside time to get to the theater.

"I try to see as much as I can," she explained. "I find that each time I go to a play, I learn so much. I was a big fan of 'Clybourne Park,' which won the Tony Award. I also loved 'Jerusalem' last year, starring the incredible Mark Rylance. 'Once' was pretty terrific, too. I could go on and on."

Regardless of the play, Wohl said deep inside she's remains the little girl who was captivated with "Peter Pan."

"I still get that feeling of chills when the lights go down, whether it's in a tiny theater somewhere or a huge Broadway house. That feeling of the dimming of the lights is magical to me," she said.

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If you go ...

What: Contemporary American Theater Festival

When: Wednesday, July 4, through Sunday, July 29

Where: Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Contact: www.catf.org

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