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What Makes “All-American” Theatre and Not TV?

Inside a new play’s vibrant development process

All-American begins with startling intimacy. In near-silence, a father and daughter play football, running through a move called the 3-step drop. We eventually learn that this girl’s a high school quarterback, that her father’s a former pro, and that her mother and brother have been ignored as he’s pushed her to succeed. But before we face the sturm und drang of family conflict, we witness two people in a peaceful, private world.

That moment came late in the development of Julia Brownell’s play, which is currently running at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program for emerging writers. It’s a potent example of how the development process can benefit a playwright and a script.

“Of all the plays I’ve ever worked on, [this one] has changed the most from the version we committed to and the version we opened with,” says director Evan Cabnet, who’s been involved with the show for a year.

The changes mostly focused on making the play more theatrical. Though she’s won major playwriting awards, Brownell has spent the last few years writing for HBO’s comedy Hung, and Cabnet says the earliest drafts of All-American felt more like television scripts than theatre pieces. “There were a lot of short, one-page scenes. Some of the scenes only had one line in them. There were scenes on rooftops. There were scenes in cars,” he explains. “I had been telling Julia, ‘You’re not going to want 22 transitions.’”

He continues, “In television, part of the momentum is in location changes, building momentum through short scenes and building up to a climax. And I’m of the school of thought that theatre works best when the actors are charged with building and sustaining the momentum.”

To that end, several short scenes were fused together, such as a moment where the father drops a bomb on his kids and another where he avoids mentioning the revelation to his wife. Cabnet says, “We thought it would be interesting if he tells the kids this piece of news and then mom walks into it, as opposed to the scene stopping, resetting the whole thing, and having everyone come back on stage. Wouldn’t it be more dramatically satisfying if mom marches into this scene?”

The team also heightened theatricality by designing a set that resembles a football stadium, with the audience in bleacher-style seats on either side of the playing space. “[But] it’s not just that it looks like a stadium and the physical staging has a football-game feel,” Cabnet says. “We were intrigued by the idea that not everyone is going to see everything. The idea is that depending on where you’re sitting, you’re going to have a different experience of what’s happening, and that’s something we can do in the theatre that you can’t do in television or film.”

In terms of theatricality, the set design also emphasizes the value of that hushed opening scene. As Cabnet says, “I think there’s a similarity between the rigors of creating and performing theatre and the rigors of playing a sport.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

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