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Trio of local playwrights rise to challenge of 'Pandora's Box'

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Trio of local playwrights rise to challenge of 'Pandora's Box'




The equipment: two actors and a large box. The challenge : Mold them into an engrossing theater piece in half an hour or less.

Sounds like a thorny assignment for just about any playwright this side of Samuel Beckett.  Yet, would you believe Lyn Coffin, Albert Sjoerdsma and Rachel Urist have gone and done it in triplicate?

It’s called “Pandora’s Box,” the shepherding title for a trio of one-acts boldy concocted by the three writers who form Performance Network’s Works in Progress project. “We came up with the idea during a brainstorming session,” says playwright Coffin. “We were trying to find something we could have a good time with. Also,” she grins, “we were sure we could find a box.”

Thus, Thursday evening at the Network you’ll be seeing three sharply contrasting variations on the group’s self-imposed actor-box syndrome, including Sjoerdsma’s “The Big Box Boogie,” Urist’s “Take Two” and Coffin’s “This Side Up.” And while all three writers have been previously blessed with multiple productions of their work, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, “Pandora’s Box” ironically marks the first time this close-knit team will officially complement one another on the same playbill (though the show received a readers’-theater run-through last spring).

“It was an experiment,” admits Urist. “Someone had suggested that we collaborate, but collaboration can get messy. So we ended up working together on a project where we would each work separately, then pool the results of our work. The only givens were two actors and a box, with a time limit of half an hour.

“None of us told the others what we were writing, but it just happened that Al used two men, I used two women, and Lynn used a man and a woman. To our glee, we realized we’d ended up using very similar images in very different contexts. So the show isn’t simply three independent one-act plays. It really is three of a piece.”

“It’s interesting,” agrees Sjoerdsma, “considering the three distinct styles we have, that there’s such a nice, package-like progression to the plays. Maybe it’s because we’ve all known each other so long.”

Sjoerdsma’s “Big Box Boogie” involves a pair of skid-row bums who come across a sealed box. Fearful of opening it, the two begin to quarrel fiercely over its ownership, to the point of imperiling then-own friendship. Urist’s “Take Two” involves two acting students assigned to improvise a scene about two actors and a box (“It’s sort of a play within a play within a play,” she laughs). While attempting to set a scene, the two students bicker so relentlessly that each good improv idea they come up with swiftly falls apart.

Coffin’s “This Side Up” features a reclusive woman who strenuously resists a delivery man’s efforts to leave a box at her door. “You don’t know what’s in the box,” explains Coffin. “Will she accept the box? Is the delivery man a murderer? Even so, the play’s funny as well as suspenseful.”

In fact, our trio is quick to label all three plays as essentially comedic (“It’s mainly written for fun,” says Sjoerdsma). As such, was inspiration a little easier to come by? “It was a snap,” concedes Sjoerdsma. “When we were first discussing the possibility of doing something like this, (the plot) just popped into my head then and there.”

"I figured I could enjoy myself writing this," agrees Coffin.  "And I think as a result it turned out to be one of the better plays I've written, because I was relaxed and having fun with it."

Urist grimaces unexpected disagreement.  "I hated writing that play.  I finally came up with an idea, but it was sheer drudgery.  I had to force myself to work on it-which is why I was so pleased that it ended up working so well."

Was our genial trio dogged by the trauma of direct creative competition?

"Maybe it was there, but I didn't feel it," demurs Coffin.

"I think we all write in such different ways," agrees Sjoerdsma, "that our plays are really like apples and oranges."

Yet Urist readily concedes the competitive intrusion-and contends "Pandora's Box" is all the better for it.  "I thin that's one of the things that's made it so good, that there was that competitive edge to the enterprise.  It fueled us.

"The thing is, we used it helpfully, used it to advantage.  We were all very helpful to each other, making suggestions.  We're very comfortable criticizing one another, because we know each of us admires and respects the others.  I think working together brought out the best in us."

'Pandora's Box' will be performed Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington St. For ticket information call 663-0681.


Lyn Coffin, left, Albert Sjoerdsma and Rachel Urist don't normally confer in the back seat of a car but, hey, if it works...