A 'Red Maple' grows in downtown Albany

Playwright David Bunce

ALBANY, N.Y. — Call it predestination, karma or divine intervention. Call it whatever you wish, but there is no denying that there are times when it seems as if every past experience has prepared you for the moment when something important is about to take place in your life.

For local playwright David Bunce, that important event takes place Tuesday, when Capital Repertory Theatre offers the world premiere of his play "Red Maple," following a series of weekend previews.

Bunce was an actor with the now-defunct New York State Theatre Institute for about 20 years. For most of the past decade he's taught, directed and acted at Russell Sage College in Troy and has written a couple of plays produced by the Theatre Institute at Sage. He's also an accredited fight choreographer and an independent film-maker. Clearly, he's a man who knows the theatrical process.

So, how does Bunce bring his vast theatrical experience to the rehearsal process in the role of playwright? "I sit in the corner of the room and silently watch," he says.

If this sounds like grousing by a playwright feeling neglected, think again. Bunce is quick to point out that he is enjoying the process enormously and does contribute on a regular basis. "I am often in awe of how this brilliant cast is elevating my words. I always knew they were funny, but now they sound absolutely hilarious," he said during a recent interview. Almost ruefully, the hands-on theater veteran added, "Though my silence is self-imposed, it is one of the hardest experiences of my life."

"Red Maple" came to Capital Rep's attention through "Next Act: New Play Summit," the theater's annual new play reading competition. Margaret Hall, Capital Rep's associate artistic director, shepherded the play through the reading process and is now directing it for the mainstage.

She has nothing but praise for the play and of Bunce's contributions to the rehearsal process. During a phone interview, she said that "Red Maple" came to the theater close to performance-ready. "It had a great structure to begin with," she said. "There were a few cuts and some details of consistency that had to be made clearer, but this was a strong play even at our first table read."

Hall said last year's public reading confirmed her assessment. "The audience started laughing right away and didn't stop." She said she finds the humor in the writing even more remarkable, because the play is a farce — one of the most difficult forms of comedy to pull off.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

She describes the play as being about a man, Robert, who questions his life and relationships after his kids have left the house. "Robert doesn't handle it well," she said.

Indeed, throughout the play, the normally dependable college professor starts to fall apart. He comes up with a unique and bizarre solution to his problems — which turns into comic mayhem. Says Hall, "It has you laughing at things like depression, murder, potential suicide, which are not typically topics for a comedy."

Hall sees Bunce's choice to remain unobtrusive as a disciplined decision by an experienced theater professional who realizes that the playwright's prime contribution during rehearsal is to permit the actors to make discoveries.

Hall is emphatic when she says she is relentless in adhering to Capital Rep's policy of never dictating choices to a playwright. "I might go to David and ask a question, or request that he consider a choice he made, but we never impose changes," she said. "We do not ever suggest we know better than the playwright. It's a delicate balance to serve both the play and the playwright. But from experience, we've learned that sometimes too much change can make the play worse."

Bunce says he is delighted with the collaboration. "I have an actor's brain," he said. "Margaret sees the whole picture. She makes so many decisions about the details of a production that I never even thought of. I started writing this four years ago, Margaret has been with it for almost three years. We've become a team.                                             

"I am open to every question and I listen to every piece of advice                    There are times where taking out two or three words improves the rhythm of a line; other times I say no to a rewrite because I think it alters the meaning of what I want to say. What I hold dear is that everyone's intent is to honor the script. I have to pay attention."

If you attend a performance of "Red Maple," look around. If you see a man sitting quietly in a corner with a big smile on his face, it might be Bunce enjoying the fruit of his 40 years of being an active theater artist.