Once a Month, often edgy, and always Intimate

Stagewest’s “Scriptease” is held the last Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Stagewest’s “Scriptease” is held the last Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

At the end of a recent Stagewest “Scriptease,” there was a lovely moment. As the applause rose, the two leads, Mary Bricker and Rebecca Scholtec, beamed at each other and fell into an embrace. Though the applause made it difficult to hear, I could swear one of them squealed.

A lovely moment, as I say, and one that underscores the intensity of the Scriptease program. For more than a decade, Stagewest has run these events once a month: a stripped-down presentation of short play — a reading rather than a production. Many programs require just a pair of actors — the “two-hander” is a favorite form, for playwrights — and none more than a handful. The players stand at lecterns, the scripts before them. Naturally they work in character, but this is limited to voice and posture. Also, the setup includes the director, who is back and to one side, supplying stage directions and sound effects. These, too, are kept low-key. If the script calls for a gunshot, he simply says, “gunshot.” It’s theater in pajamas with microwave popcorn.

Which isn’t to say it can’t have an edge. The piece last Tuesday, “Walter Cronkite is Dead,” exposed painful secrets between two women no longer young. And director Michael Tallman recalled hearing worse at his first “Scriptease.” Then, as now, the reading took place in a church sanctuary, the Unitarian Universalist. A setting for prayer and contemplation, thought Tallman — but then the play started.

“It was all ‘fuck you’ and ‘piece of shit’ and like that,” he recalls, smiling. “You forgot in a hurry that you were in a church.”

When Todd Buchacker, Stagewest’s new executive director, dug in the “Scriptease” archives, he discovered that the first, back in 2002, was “Poona the Fuckdog (and other Plays for Children).” Hardly the stuff of sermons. But on the other hand, the playwright for “Poona” had a local connection. Jeff Goode, now in Los Angeles, California, got his start in Iowa City.

Both Buchacker and Tallman explain that the program tries to use Iowa people, directors as well as playwrights. Among the recent works was one by Donald Fried about the 2008 raid on the Postville meatpacking plant. Wherever the work comes from, though, “Sciptease” functions as what Buchacker calls an “incubator for what’s challenging and different.” He especially values how it allows Des Moines audiences to “see and hear work we couldn’t mount as a full production.”

Tallman agrees and adds that the once-a-month program has its own appeal. “It’s so intimate,” he says. Plays get only three or four rehearsals, during which “everyone concentrates on character and feeling.”

Intimate and full of feeling — no wonder Scholtec and Bricker fell into a hug.

Overheard in the Lobby: The next “Scriptease,” Tuesday, Aug. 26, will be “Every Five Minutes” by Linda McLean, a story about a homecoming that turns into a nightmare. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.