From Idea To Opening Night, Boise Contemporary Theater's New Play Has Arrived

Apr 4, 2014

Actors Stitch Marker and Carie Kawa rehearse a scene from The Uncanny Valley at Boise Contemporary Theater.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

A new original play opens Saturday at Boise Contemporary Theater (BCT), and there’s a chance the actors might be handed new lines between now and then. I’ve been following the creation of The Uncanny Valley for nearly a year, ever since I had a chance run in with BCT’s Dwayne Blackaller last April. He told me about the new play he was writing with BCT artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark.

At that point, it was mostly ideas scrawled on a whiteboard. But Blackaller knew the play would be set in an artist’s retreat in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. And he described the opening scene. A naked woman, a photographer, stands on top of a ladder. She falls and somewhere before she hits the ground she takes a picture of herself.

“It’s the only time she sees life in her body or her eyes is when she’s falling,” Blackaller says.

What he had described stuck with me for months. So in November I went by the basement office he and Clark share at BCT to find out how the story was coming along. They’d made a lot of progress. It had a love story, family drama, a robot and a lot more. Blackaller said the first half was mostly done, but there was a lot they didn’t yet know about the second half.

“We’re pretty sure where we’re going to land at the end,” Blackaller said. “How we get there is the exciting part in the next month or so we’ll really be figuring out how we land the ending.”

Exciting yes, but during this November visit Blackaller and Clark agreed it was also scary.

“I feel like the panic that I feel is just the right amount of panic,” Blackaller said.

“We’ve already sold many, many tickets to this show and it’s not done yet,” Clark added. “But it will be.”

The First Read

Now jump ahead to February. It was the first time all the actors sat down to read the script. Blackaller, who is also co-directing with Clark, read the stage directions.

“The Uncanny Valley, The Longhouse, isolated at the edge of the Idaho wilderness,” he read. “The longhouse was built as an artist’s retreat.”

That hadn’t changed from the earliest ideas but that first dramatic scene he had described had become the second scene and was a little different. Naked woman poised to fall, yes. There’s photography equipment but no ladder, that will come later, and we don’t see her fall at this point.  

What followed had a compelling narrative shape, action, tension and some lovely speeches. It sounded like a finished play right up to the end of the first half. But the second half still consisted mostly of ideas and fragments just like it had three months earlier. I reminded Clark how they had described then.

“Yeah, we’re much farther but you can still describe it the same way,” Clark said sending Blackaller into a fit of laughter.  

Blackaller and Clark examining props on stage of The Uncanny Valley.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Clark said they had a much clearer idea of what the second half would be than they did a few months earlier. But after the reading, the actors had almost an hours' worth of questions and suggestions that could lead to rewrites of the first half. Blackaller promised the second half would be on paper by the first rehearsal, which was coming up in in three weeks.

“We will have a script to work from, but language, even what happens plot-wise, can change depending on what feedback we’re getting from the group,” he said. “And what’s cool about it is that with this group I know we will be making adjustments all the way through to opening night.”

Cool or terrifying?  For actor Carie Kawa who plays the photographer it’s both.  

“You know you’re getting to make your mark on the piece,” Kawa said. “It’s like fresh clay and you get to be part of the forming of it. And that’s totally thrilling. But then it’s also totally terrifying because you’re just jumping off this cliff into the unknown.”

As promised, she got a script with two halves at the first rehearsal in March. A week later she said there had been some edits and revisions but (holding up her crossed fingers) no major overhauls, so far.

Performance Week

Now, one more jump ahead in time to this week. It’s one of the last rehearsals before the first preview Wednesday. They’re working the beginning of act two, the part that wasn’t written a month ago.

Despite frequent starts and stops to adjust light cues, Kawa says they’re now very close to a finished product. But they still don’t know after all these months of writing, re-writing, rehearsing and more re-writing, if the story will connect with audiences or fall completely flat.

With an existing play, actors and directors can look at the script objectively. It’s been seen and reviewed and digested and they know if it’s good before they start. It’s just a matter of how well a theater company can produce it. That’s the big difference with a new work like The Uncanny Valley. The cast, crew and writers at Boise Contemporary Theater won’t know if they have a good play until they’ve performed it. They have a preview Friday. It’s their last chance to figure that out before the show opens Saturday.

“We’re going to learn so much when we have a whole crowd of people who have never heard or seen this play before,” Kawa says. “We’re going to find out if it holds together. And if it doesn’t quite then we’re going to have to make changes.”

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio