Design of a dramaturge
A local playwright's take on crafting life on the stage
Shakespeare, Mamet, Chekhov, Rabinow. What do these surnames have in common?
They all belong to playwrights.
If you don’t recognize the last, you haven’t seen some of the newest plays to be written and developed in the underground arts hub of Rhode Island.
Rabinow, a resident of Cranston, attended Wheaton College, where he dabbled at playwriting, but it wasn’t until he got to the Trinity Repertory Consortium that he began to seriously venture into it.
“That’s when I started writing correctly,” he said.
Rabinow was at the Consortium to earn his master’s degree in performance but, as is customary for all students, he also took classes in playwriting.
“I thought it was so much fun, and so much less work than acting,” said Rabinow, whose lightning-fast wit always appears in his casual conversation.
That same wit appears in his plays. Rabinow said he has been serious about writing for about 10 years and has produced 20 shows in various lengths and genres.
“But only about 10 of them are any good,” he joked.
His most recent, a dark comedy called “Vacancy,” opens this week at 95 Empire, AS220’s performance space in downtown Providence.
“It’s a fun night; literally filled with vomit, underwear and violence,” he said. “It’s not at all like ‘Our Town.’”
Rabinow’s most recent piece, written with fellow theater writer Alexander Platt, is not at all like the first play he ever staged.
“In grad school, I wrote a 10-minute play in rhyming verse,” said Rabinow, who wanted to see if it could be done effectively.
That play told the story of a young boy whose mother took away his favorite toy and was intent on world domination. With the help of two stuffed animals, the boy tried to get back his toy and save mankind. That’s Rabinow in a nutshell – transforming the simple and ordinary into something profound and thought-provoking.
A musical he wrote last year was selected to be produced this fall in Manhattan. The show centers on a group of “third graders that create a school play in an attempt to subvert their school’s Christian fundamentalist culture.”
Rabinow said it was refreshing to take his show on the road to a new city, especially New York, where the competition is tougher.
“It can be insular in Providence,” admitted Rabinow. “It was nice to take [the play] in front of a roomful of strangers.”
With a slew of lauidable plays under his belt, Rabinow uses his skills to teach others the art of playwriting at the Gamm Theatre, Providence College and the Trinity Repertory summer camp.
Despite his novel storylines, Rabinow said his approach to solitary playwriting isn’t abnormal.
“I’m not sure what real playwrights do,” he said. “I just have to carve out time to be alone.”
“Vacancy” took about five weeks to write, edit and rewrite, but Rabinow said he was still making minor tweaks in rehearsals with the cast.
Rabinow and Platt set to work writing two separate short plays that they combined into a 70-minute comedy.
Rabinow said his plays don’t often come from a specific inspiration, just a “weird little germ” of an idea. In the case of “Vacancy,” the germ was the motel room setting.
“The restriction can be freeing,” said Rabinow, who said that, with no unifying factor tying everything together, the expanse of plot possibilities can be overwhelmingly and endless.
“It helps to connect A to Z. When you don’t know what B to Y looks like, it’s helpful when you have a sense of what D could be,” he said.
And Rabinow is happy with how A to Z connected in “Vacancy.” Although he said he can’t honestly pick a favorite play or character he’s done, he does admit that he’s in love with the lead character in his latest work.
“I always hear novelists say they have a favorite,” he said. Rabinow said being an actor and improviser has helped with writing for the stage.
“It helps with everything,” he said. “It’s really important to understand what everyone is going through.”
Rabinow said he didn’t always see how acting, writing and directing were all so closely linked. It was a chat with his teacher at the Consortium, Brian McEleney, that made things click.
Rabinow was talking with McEleney about a project McEleney was directing. Rabinow thought it must be challenging for an actor to direct.
“‘They’re all the same thing,’” Rabinow remembered him saying. “I’m just starting to understand that.”
Rabinow said all theater has the same goal: “Say something to a room full of strangers in as little time as possible and have them understand,” he said. “You have to get at the heart of things quickly.”
Rabinow hopes that “Vacancy” will do just that.
“It’s really cool and really different,” he said. “We had no idea what we were doing when we started. I think that’s when really good stuff happens.”
“Vacancy” will be produced by the Elemental Theatre Collective at 95 Empire Street, Providence, Thursday, April 26 through May 6. Tickets, $15, are available at www.elementaltheatre.org/tickets or at www.brownpapertickets.com.