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The Riot Group Returns to Burlington

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Shaplin (Front Left) and The Riot Group
  • Shaplin (Front Left) and The Riot Group

In Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the sun is setting over thatch-roofed cottages that have hardly changed since the 17th century — Adriano Shaplin begins his phone call to Seven Days with this envy-provoking image. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright-in-Residence is taking a quick break from writing to chat about his boundary-busting theater ensemble The Riot Group. They’re returning to the Flynn Center to perform and teach for two weeks at the end of June.

Last May, the Burlington native and his avant-garde troupe packed the FlynnSpace for a pair of signature Riot Group works: Pugilist Specialist, about American soldiers attempting to assassinate a Middle Eastern dictator; and Victory at the Dirt Palace, a King Lear-inspired satire of cutthroat media competition. The home turf performances were the first for Shaplin, 28, since his active community theater days as a teen.

After a decade’s absence, Shaplin is now anticipating annual appearances. The success of last year’s run marks the beginning of a “continuous relationship” between the Flynn and The Riot Group. “Before we left, we sat down with [Flynn Artistic Director] Arnie Malina and he offered to help us make a new piece,” Shaplin says. The result? The Flynn is a major underwriter of Hearts of Man, the new Riot Group play that Shaplin is penning. Burlingtonians will get the premiere peek of a free work-in-progress performance on July 6 at the FlynnSpace.

Participating in the Flynn’s education program was part of the bargain. Next week’s three-part workshop, “Extreme Drama with The Riot Group,” capitalizes on ideas and exercises Shaplin has been playing with as part of his gig with the RSC. Teaching at neighboring Warwick University, in Coventry, “I’ve been given free rein to develop new education models,” he notes. The playwright says he synthesizes a range of influences, and tries to “combat some of the more academic approaches to theater-making,” which stress theory at the expense of practice.

“The Riot Group itself is a synthesis of what I learned working in community theater in Burlington,” Shaplin recalls. “It’s not about your own vanity, or you expressing yourself as the artist. It’s about getting up on your feet with other people and telling a story together. And there are really practical moves that you can make to do that.” The hometown connection gives him extra motivation. “It’s also just us proselytizing . . . I’m still interested in there being a vibrant theater scene in Burlington that generates new work, where people are writing plays.”

The workshop functions as “a laboratory, with me operating as dictator,” he says wryly. “We’re generating text and dialogue on the spot, and developing it and revising it in 15-minute increments, drill-sergeant style. And just literally building scenes and play structures up from scratch,” he describes.

“The ‘extreme’ part of it is the boot-camp element of how much writing is going on,” Shaplin continues. “You’re not allowed to stop moving your pencil across the paper for five minutes, and then we’ll cut out everything that wasn’t any good.” He turns writing “into a physical rather than a mental act.” Participants should emerge from the sessions with a “blueprint for how they could complete a play,” he predicts.

Shaplin confronts students with the same challenge he tackles: “Identifying unanswerable questions” is the starting point, he says. “With playwriting, it’s not about writing what you know, it’s about writing what you don’t know. You have to identify questions that you don’t have the answer to, because that’s where dialogue and conflict are going to come from.”

Hearts of Man tackles a whopper: “How do you defend the undefendable charge of pederasty?” Shaplin asks. A New Jersey man, caught in an online sting, winds up pilloried in the media and the subject of warring lawyers in a courtroom drama. “It is my attempt to meld together and tell a totally contemporary tale about justice and mercy and sex and the Internet,” he says. “But tell it in an Elizabethan way, in a Shakespearean way.”

For this play, the Riot Group’s quintet of actors, which includes Shaplin, will be augmented by two New York actresses and Burlington’s own Dennis McSorley. (He and Shaplin made their stage debuts together when Shaplin was just 14.) Hearts of Man opens this fall in Philadelphia and tours throughout 2008, with a stop in Burlington to show off the work in its finished form.

The twin responsibilities of Riot Group and Royal Shakespeare have been keeping Shaplin busy, to say the least, as he splits his time between continents and centuries. He admits to being “in the middle of a pit of fire” at the moment, trying to complete his initial RSC commission (while finishing Hearts of Man). The “big English history play about the birth of experimental science at the Restoration of Charles II” has 17 speaking parts. “It’s definitely the most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted,” he explains.

But you can almost hear his smile across the Atlantic. “I’m very, very happy writing in iambic pentameter on the banks of the river Avon,” he says enthusiastically. “It doesn’t really get much better.”

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