Backstage: What makes a play good?

Cindy Im, who plays Hanna in “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,” is in her second season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Last year, she was in “Great Expectations” and “The Winter’s Tale.” We met at RAW on Main Street in Ashland.

EH: Was “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” developed through the Ashland New Plays Festival?

CI: It had a development process through the Ashland New Plays Festival, but the process goes further back. This play has been in development for a number of years. In fact, I did one of the first readings of it, three or four years ago, in San Francisco. Just by happenstance, I got to do the world premier of it here.

EH: What is the process of developing plays with playwrights?

CI: It varies, depending on the chemistry in the room. Some playwrights just want to hear the words out loud; they have their own strong ideas about how it should go. It’s not so much about getting feedback from the actors, but about hearing it, and seeing how it bounces off the page. There are other playwrights that want feedback from actors: “What makes sense to you? What is more confusing?” Chemistry with the director will dictate how much feedback you give.

EH: How has “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” changed since you first read it?

CI: The bones of the play have largely remained the same. Phrasing and word choices have changed, but the meat and purpose of it has remained.

EH: What prime element makes a great play?

CI: The thing that makes a good play is — something that reveals some sort of truth about the human experience. Sometimes it’s not logical. It gets in there and stirs you in a way that makes you see some part of yourself, regardless of whose story it is. The story may take place in different neighborhoods, different countries, with people that look different than you. When a story is told well, at the end of the day, it’s about people fighting the same battles. It’s about trying to learn how to love yourself, love other people, and deal with adversity. It’s about the human experience.

EH: Is there a structure that is necessary for a great play?

CI: There are so many different kinds of structure in plays: There’s the linear narrative; there’s using time (to jump back and forth) to reveal things that have already happened; there are plays where you set up a structure; and then, in the following scene, you realize that, that structure is actually incorrect. I don’t think there is any one way to do it, but there is something about surprising the audience. If the audience can predict what’s going to happen, there’s less room for investment. If you find ways to surprise and delight people, without letting go of the truth, that makes for very compelling theater.

EH: How does theater affect politics?

CI: There’s this old saying that — in a totalitarian regime — the first people that get taken out are artists and philosophers. I think there is some sound thinking behind that. Artists are storytellers.

We have this incredible gift to be able to present something that hopefully is reflective of humanity, in front of an audience, and engage with that audience in that dialogue. And at the end of it, it moves and changes somebody, including ourselves. I really hope it makes a difference.

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