In the Albany Civic “Seminar”, young writers learn about reality

The intimate but often tense environment of a writers’ studio is the setting for Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar“. The 90-minute comedy made its Broadway debut in 2011 and is getting its regional premiere at the Albany Civic Theater in a new production that runs February 11-20.

“Writers in their natural state are wildcats and this play has a lot of jealousy and hate,” says director Laura Darling. When listing the characteristics of writers, one could also include fragile egos and competitive tendencies.

Here’s the set-up: four budding young writers fresh out of the safety of their liberal arts colleges sign up for a nine-week seminar with a great (or at least once-great) author named Leonard. The chicks arrive with splurges of grandeur that begin with New Yorker debuts and quickly transitions to Times bestsellers and Hollywood movie deals.

With nothing to lose with this team, Leonard gives scathing assessments of their weekly efforts and exposes brutal facts about the industry, all in vivid and profane detail.

“These writers put their heart and soul on the page and what they deliver in return are rude and harsh criticisms, which they are not used to hearing,” says Darling. “The truth hurts but he does it to help. The dose of reality hits them hard – the real world will chew them up and spit them out.

Alan Rickman created the character of Leonard for Broadway. The British actor, who died in 2016, seems like an ideal candidate given how well he fulfilled the role of Severus Snape, the dark and bitter professor from the Harry Potter films.

As Leonard for Albany Civic, Steve Leifer, a 67-year-old retiree from state government and a veteran of the local theater scene. In his estimation, jaded writers are close relatives of embittered actors.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and when I read the script I thought of a lot of friends and acquaintances to lean on,” says Leifer. “Leonard is full of bullshit and also just for the money. He has passion, has abused substances and is a bit of a horned dog. He’s not just another black and white character. There’s depth and that’s what I want to play, although I still want to have the witty lines.

The seminar with Leonard was supposed to last nine weeks, but things fall apart long before that. The sessions take place in the sprawling rent-controlled apartment of Kate, one of the most privileged students, on the Upper West Side. The final scene takes place in Leonard’s excavations.

Darling promises designer Peter Kantor’s change of scenery will be something to behold. “The set unfolds on itself and the walls become Leonard’s apartment through a trick of scenic movement. It’s a shame it’s only for one scene. It’s a radical change that deserves a standing ovation,” she said.

A bank lawyer by day, Darling, 37, has previously directed for Confetti Stage and Troy Civic Theater Company. Also a writer, she hosted her first writing conference while still in high school in the northern village of Dolgeville. When asked if there was an affinity between practicing law and directing theater, Darling highlighted his own skills, saying, “I never shut up. I think that carries over to the theatre.

For her first outing with Albany Civic, she came up with “Seminar.” It was early 2020. “They approached me ready to rock-n-roll in the fall of 2020. It kept getting pushed back with a big question mark,” recalls- she.


ACT’s first post-shutdown production was Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” which played in November and had a cast of just three actors. Via email, company president Kevin McNamara explained, “We chose a minimalist piece as ‘Art’ to relaunch us after a year and a half of no live theater production. The auditions, however, were well attended. Now with “Seminar”, we have a complete team: scenographer, stage manager, assistant director, props man, etc., and a cast of five people. We had nearly 40 people audition and casting the play was a welcome challenge.

According to McNamara, the troupe’s theater, a former fire hall on Second Avenue, is owned and maintained by the city. This meant that as long as the scene was dark, there were no transport costs. All that needed to be done was dusting and monitoring the phone.

While “Art”‘s attendance was low, McNamara predicts “Seminar” will have much better numbers. He attributes this optimism “to the spectacular networking of our director and the fact that the public knows that the theater is back in operation in the capital region”.

joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

“Seminar”

When: Opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 11 and runs for six more performances through February 20.

Where: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Avenue, Albany, NY

Tickets: $10 to $18. Dial (518) 462-1297. Or visit: albanycivictheater.org.


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