July 13, 2016
When a playwright is frustrated with something, there’s one obvious way to cope with that frustration.
When Mark Charney, director of the School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech University, found himself in a playwriting workshop that he didn’t find particularly helpful, he fell back onto what he knew: playwriting.
“I began imagining everyone in the class was a character in a play, except for me,” he said.
His play, “Shooting Blanks,” is very loosely based on Charney’s time at the Great Plains Theatre Festival and his experience in that workshop, but really it’s a farce about words, vulnerability and people’s inability to communicate, he said. In early June he, theatre professor Linda Donahue and a dozen students, professors and community members traveled to the Czech Republic to perform the play at the Prague Fringe Festival, the largest and oldest English-language theatre festival in continental Europe.
The festival is a regular stop for the study abroad program the College of Visual and Performing Arts offers, but the first time for most of the participants and the first time they performed in the festival. Doctoral candidate Randall Rapstine, who has wanted to attend the festival for years, said it did not disappoint.
“The festival was outrageous,” he said. “It’s impossible to know what quality of work you might see, but it is always interesting and unusual. Some shows were incredibly thoughtful, some were profoundly ridiculous – on purpose. Performing at the Fringe is a challenge and a rush.”
Charney workshopped “Shooting Blanks” at the New Works Festival in Los Angeles before performing the play throughout the United States, Indonesia and Singapore. He and Donahue, who directed the play, applied to the Prague Fringe Festival earlier this year. “Shooting Blanks” was one of about 40 plays selected out of hundreds of applicants.
“‘Shooting Blanks’ is a perfect piece for the Fringe,” Donahue said. “It is funny, poignant, disturbing, frank and ‘Fringey.’”
It is also, one performer said, full of interesting subtext about issues.
“I’m a pretty political person, and I really love the commentary on gun violence weaved within the play,” said Zach Dailey, a doctoral student in interdisciplinary fine arts and theatre who played the character of Russ. “I find the plot timely, especially considering the new campus carry policy starting in the fall.”
The cast performed the play three times throughout the nine-day festival, each time at A Studio Rubin, a basement venue in a late medieval building which, through multiple renovations since the mid-1400s, served as both a hospital and a residence. It held about 60 people and was wonderful for the show, Charney said. The set for the play is simple; the props are five chairs and a blackboard.
The festival itself is nine days of theatre and dance performances in half a dozen unique, historic venues scattered through beautiful downtown Prague. Performers and playwrights came from throughout the world to be part of Fringe.
“It’s a party of theatre,” Charney said. “Artists meet artists, and we all see four or so shows in an evening. We gather at the end of the night to celebrate. It’s a theatregoer’s dream.”
They did not win any of the juried awards at the festival, but Charney said “Shooting Blanks” did take home the Most Suggestive Title award, a joke award from the Fringe community. He was disappointed, but both he and Donahue felt Texas Tech represented well at the festival.
“The play was well-received by audiences, and we enjoyed lots of terrific feedback from Fringe patrons and artists,” Donahue said. “It was exciting to showcase our playwright, directors, actors and designers in a prestigious international setting.”
Rapstine was one of the few students who took part in the performance. He played Gary, a playwright and punk sympathizer who wrote a play about Amarillo native Gary Deneke, who was killed in 1999. Rapstine made special mention of his character’s “socialization issues.”
“He’s middle-aged but sports a turquoise and purple mohawk,” Rapstine said – a detail that made his life more complicated when they had just 10 minutes to get ready for one performance, which meant gluing on his mohawk in a tiny, cramped dressing room.
As much as he loved the performance and the city itself – “what a GORGEOUS city!” – his favorite part was working with Charney, Donahue and head of acting Dean Nolen, who has numerous movie and Broadway credits to his name.
Same for Katie Hahn, a master’s of fine arts student who served as the assistant director and stage manager for the performance. She got involved in part to get the international experience and in part to be involved with high-level performers.
“There was something special about such a small group putting this show together to take overseas; doing a process like this ensures everyone gets to know each other very quickly,” Hahn said. “We only rehearsed for a total of three weeks, so it was imperative to work hard and learn to trust what we were creating. Each actor and member of the production crew was fully invested and brought something unique to the table, and that’s what made this a wonderful show to work on.”
But, being in Prague and being part of the Fringe Festival couldn’t be oversold. All of the performances are in Malá Strana, the historic neighborhood near Prague Castle. Hahn said as a director, she particularly enjoyed the new and unique works of all types: traditional text-based performance, dance, spoken word, improvisation, mime and immersive theatre. She also liked interacting with actors, performers and directors from throughout the world.
This was the fifth year for theatre and dance students to study abroad in Prague. They plan it so the students can attend the Prague Fringe Festival, which Donahue said is always the highlight of the trip. After the festival they stay for two more weeks, spending their days in classes at the University of New York in Prague or exploring the history and artistic legacy of the Czech Republic, both in the nation’s capital or throughout the country.
Their day trips included art museums like Lobkowicz, Alfone Mucha, DOX and St. Agnes; Jewish and Christian cemeteries; Terezin/Theresiensadt, a Nazi holding camp; and Kutna Hora, a World Heritage site home to two Baroque churches – the Church of St. Barbara and the Cathedral of our Lady at Sedlec – as well as the Sedlec Ossuary, a church decorated with thousands of human bones.
The students also focus on more modern culture; this year the group went on a tour of the Radio Prague, similar to National Public Radio in the United States, as well as a tour of the Czech National Theatre and an invitation from the British ambassador to the Czech Republic to visit the British Embassy in celebration of the Prague Fringe Festival.
They have some surprising connections in this former Soviet country.
“Many of our prospects are provided by our American friends in Prague,” Donahue said. “We are, therefore, afforded privileged access to many sites not readily available to tourists.”
The university is one of two in Texas to offer all traditional degrees in theatre, and one of only three in the southwest to offer a Ph.D. in Fine Arts.
Students in the School of Theatre and Dance pursue a core curriculum that includes training in the areas of design, acting, directing, dance, stage management, history and playwriting.Twitter