DG National Report: Ohio-South by Jennifer Schlueter
Charles Smith, Head of the MFA Playwriting Program at Ohio University (Athens), is fittingly proud of the program he has built. Out of the 36 MFA programs designated as the “leading graduate playwriting programs” in the nation by the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Award, only UT-Austin and Julliard surpass OU’s record of placements and winners. The work of OU graduates has been produced at prestigious venues including Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Actors Theatre of Louisville, New Dramatists, and the Mark Taper Forum, and published at all the major presses. The program is exceptionally vibrant, and, tucked away in the scenic Hocking Hills, it might be one of the best-kept secrets in graduate training for playwrights.
As in many other MFA programs, students at OU undertake regular workshops, in which they develop full length plays and screenplays, and seminar coursework, in which they investigate approaches to narrative and theatricality. OU also, like other programs, presents an industry-attended new play festival each year. But what sets OU’s program apart, and what marks their graduates, is its rigorous and demanding Playwrights Production component. Also known as “Madness,” Playwrights Production is a weekly, informal festival of new work. Early each week, a writer within the program is designated as Producing Artistic Director, and chooses a topic, style, or approach for the week’s work. Each playwright then creates a five-minute piece that speaks to the concerns at hand. The piece is rehearsed by the playwright across the week and then presented on Friday evenings at 11 PM for an invited audience. On Monday, it starts all over again with a different student at the helm.
What students gain from the Madness experience is multifaceted. First, Smith points out, each student becomes a Producing Artistic Director and learns how to coordinate and shape an evening of theatre. The PAD receives her colleague’s plays on Friday afternoon and is tasked with structuring the upcoming evening with an eye towards “a developing theme, idea, or rising action.” She creates a frame for the evening that will help it become a cohesive event, rather than a kaleidoscope of short works. And she coordinates a post-show feedback session on the following Monday.
Additionally, as Smith underscores, the crucible of quick production “places the playwright in the theatre, working with actors, on new material every week during the three years that they’re here. It helps the writer to develop the ability to rewrite in rehearsals.” But it also serves as a laboratory that allows writers to experiment with techniques and ideas, in front of an audience, “before committing to those theories on a larger scale, such as a full-length play.” And it “eliminates the idea of the muse…. you cannot afford to sit around and wait to be inspired.”
Perhaps most importantly, over the three years in the MFA program, each student will have developed 54 short plays, all presented before an audience. This, more than anything else, helps a writer’s “voice and vision…inevitably become apparent.”
The pressure of Madness is palpable each week. But “students who thrive” under that kind of pressure, Smith says, “are students who must and will write during the good times and the bad.” And those are, ultimately, the playwrights who work.
For more information on OU’s MFA Playwriting Program, visit http://ohioplaywriting.org/
Photo: (above) From Madness
Photo: (above) Max Monnig and Lisa Bol in the Ohio University Playwrights Festival production of Mark Chrisler’s play, Worse Than Tigers, directed by Shelley Delaney. Photo by Linsi McCal
DG National Report: Seattle by Duane Kelly
Who leads LORT theatre companies and university drama programs has an outsized impact on a region’s playwrights. In recent months Seattle has seen major changes in those corridors.
Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Jerry Manning (formerly of New York Theatre Workshop and Woolly Mammoth) died suddenly in April due to complications following a routine heart operation. The Seattle Rep’s board moved quickly and promoted the Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Braden Abraham to Acting Artistic Director with a two-year contract. Abraham, age 37, has spent nearly his entire career at Seattle Rep, having begun as an intern in 2002 just out of college. Abraham has directed more than a dozen plays for the theater. Manning and Abraham were both committed to fostering new plays. Abraham launched and led the Rep’s Writers Group and has overseen an annual staged reading of new plays. These new play development programs will remain a priority, Abraham has said.
The Rep has seen a complete change in its top leadership this year, with a new Managing Director also coming aboard. Jeffrey Herrman, after serving as Managing Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) since 2007, recently joined the Rep at that position.
Across town, the University of Washington appointed Todd London as Executive Director of its School of Drama. A longtime champion of playwrights, London has served as Artistic Director of New Dramatists since 1996. London will also teach as a professor in the Drama School. Seattle has a vibrant and tight-knit theatre community. One of London’s charges is to deepen the University’s ties to that community. Accompanying London to the UW is his wife, widely respected playwright Karen Hartman. She joins the University as Senior Artist in Residence. Hartman most recently taught at Yale University and New York University. Seattle playwrights are thrilled about London and Hartman’s move to the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle playwrights could be forgiven for puffing out their chests a bit during this year’s Tony Awards ceremony as one of their own, Robert Schenkkan, won Best Play for All the Way, his new script about President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Bryan Cranston also pulled down a Tony for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play, for his portrayal of LBJ in All the Way.
Congrats are also due to three Dramatists Guild members in Seattle who this past year received Edgarton Foundation Awards which help fund first productions of new plays: Elizabeth Heffron for Bo-Nita, Steven Dietz (who divides his time between Austin and Seattle) for Rancho Mirage, and Robert Schenkkan for The Great Society, his sequel to All the Way. The Edgarton Foundation also enabled Heffron to attend this year’s TCG conference in San Diego. At the TCG conference Heffron attended a session of 200 women playwrights, which just happened to be moderated by new Seattle resident Karen Hartman.
DG National Report: San Francisco by Suze Allen
The Bay Area had quite a treat in early May when Business Affairs Exec Ralph Sevush ESQ and his amazing assistant Amy VonVett came to town for the weekend to present a cutting edge program, Protecting Your Rights: Legal Rights and Risks for Playwrights, which was sponsored by Tides Theatre and 3Girls Theatre. Our two days of programming served at least 100 members. (I wish it could have been more!) The event started off on Saturday night with a DG member Meet and Greet and screening of “Somebody Wrote That Song” and concluded with a Presentation by Ralph Sevush on the DG Bill of Rights as well as a Q & A with local playwrights: Bill Bivins, Lee Brady, Aaron Loeb and Patricia Milton on their experience contracting with Bay Area theatres. What a wealth of information!
It is always a learning curve when the fabulous DG comes calling. I know because I learned so much. Ralph has a way of explaining things that just makes the rules crystal clear. Many of my constituency expressed their gratitude for having Ralph and Amy onboard and we all concur – “knowledge is power” and subsequently are feeling strong as we put our work out into the stratosphere.
On Sunday, we hosted a Dramatists Guild Town Hall Meeting followed by a panel called Teaching Writers their Rights and Original Script Use at the College and University Level with Susan Jackson, CIty College of San Francisco Theatre Arts Instructor and Award winning Bay Area Playwright, Carol Fregly Retired Professor of Theatre at CCSF, Lisa Morse, PhD Marin College. A lively discussion led to a promise for a union with the colleges and is set to begin discussion in September.
What a coup!
DG National Report: Pittsburgh by Gab Cody
“What can the Dramatists Guild do for me?” I’ve heard this question a few times over the last year. Before I was acquainted with all that the Dramatists Guild provides to writers, I admit I asked the question myself. The answer is multitudinous, but for one playwright in Pittsburgh, a Dramatists Guild event led to a world premiere of his play.
In 2010, Jamie Slavinsky, artistic director of the Organic Theater of Pittsburgh, got together with the Guild and then-regional rep Tammy Ryan to organize “From the Ground Up”. At this innovative event, twelve DG playwrights read five minutes of their work for an audience of smaller and mid-sized Pittsburgh theater companies. The artistic directors of the companies then had five minutes to introduce their companies to the audience of playwrights. In the lobby afterward, playwright Philip Real met Vince Ventura, artistic director of 12 Peers Theater, who expressed interest in the play from which he had read: Cactus. Real gave Ventura a copy of the play that night. A few days later, Ventura sent an email saying he wanted to produce Cactus. Real was impressed by the ease of the exchange, “For someone like me who has sent in unsolicited scripts to theaters and heard nothing for months or longer, this was a delightfully immediate experience.”
Even after a few readings and rewrites, Real knew the play needed further refinement. At another Dramatists Guild event focusing on dramaturgy, Real got the idea of hiring a dramaturg to help guide the process toward production. He suggested this to 12 Peers and they offered the job to fellow Dramatists Guild member, playwright, director and dramaturg Kyle Bostian. As they worked together, it became apparent that the dramaturg would make an effective director for the world premiere. Bostian remembers: “Collaborating with Phil was an absolute pleasure. He’d never worked with an ‘official’ dramaturg before and was understandably a bit wary of how it might go. I think one of the reasons he approached me about the project and the main reason our process was as successful as it was is that he trusted that – as a playwright and DG member myself – I would be committed to realizing his vision. As we moved forward, he saw that my directorial vision was an extension – a supportive enhancement – of his own.”
The play, a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet starring vampires and tackling issues surrounding border control, is essentially a family drama and love story with characters who happen to be vampires. Bostian adds, “The situations and relationships are very human, and the story explores socio-political issues and broader existential ideas that apply to all of us.”
As every playwright knows, there’s no substitute for a full production. Real avers: “I can’t imagine going through the huge effort this has been for me to keep writing and re-writing without the goal of a production. Vince provided the impetus by being encouraging along the way, telling me to take the time I needed while reassuring me this was all moving toward the goal of production. After having been in a room alone writing, to finally have actors on their feet reading the lines brought all sorts of new ideas about the story and characters for me to work on.”
The show runs from June 27th to July 13th at the Grey Box Theater in Pittsburgh’s hottest neighborhood, Lawrenceville. Real says he is a grateful playwright working with great designers, a supportive theater company and a director who brings a fierce passion and insight to the process: “The production is a beauty.”
DG National Report: New Jersey by Stephen Kaplan
It’s Fall and that means Back-to-School. In honor of students everywhere sharpening their pencils and staring at blank pieces of paper or computer screens, I thought I’d take a look at some of the opportunities for young playwrights in our state. Seeing the amazing work being presented by young artists in our state alone is enough to quash any fear of theatre’s demise.
The New Jersey Young Playwrights Contest and Festival was influenced and inspired by Young Playwrights, Inc.’s national competition, founded in 1981 by then DG President Stephen Sondheim. The NJYPC, now in its 31st year, is currently a partnership between Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre. The winning plays, submitted by students in 4th-12th grades, receive staged readings at Kean University with the writers invited to work with professional dramaturgs (this year’s included playwrights Pia Wilson and Martyna Majok), directors and actors throughout the rehearsal process. In addition to the elementary, junior high and high school levels, this past year the Festival also added the Revolutionary Plays Category for plays focusing on the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Jersey, and the Living With Disabilities Category for plays written by young playwrights or about characters with disabilities.
Jim DeVivo, the Director of Education for Playwrights Theatre and the coordinator for the New Jersey Writers Project residencies and the statewide and local Young Playwrights Festivals, is actually writing his dissertation for his PhD in Educational Theatre on the impact of arts education participation on former student-writers in the Festival. Probably the biggest impact that Jim has found is how empowering it is for the students.
Talia Green, a winner for her play Ink Never Dulls, talked about how “it was a rather indescribable feeling, watching real people recite my text as serious as though it was a work by a published playwright.” Emily Donegan, a winner for her play Mechanical Advancement, echoed these sentiments: “When I had written my play, I thought it was just a silly little throwaway assignment that wouldn’t get much further than my teacher’s desk. Knowing that other people had read it and liked it enough to work on making it better gave me a sense of confidence in my writing that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
(A side note, but one deserving further exploration is that the majority of former winners (68%) is female – in the 2014 contest, all but one of the thirteen total winners in all categories was female. With so much current discussion on gender parity in plays being produced, this is a startling, but extremely noteworthy statistic).
There are a number of other competitions in the state including those run by Bergen Community College, Cranford’s The Theatre Project and Princeton University’s 10-Minute Play Contest. In addition to the contests, many of our theatres have playwriting residency programs where teaching artists go into schools and work with students on creating new work, including McCarter Theatre’s Youth Ink, Playwrights Theatre’s New Jersey Writer’s Project and New Jersey Rep’s Young Playwrights Project, which highlights students from communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.
So, other than being incredibly inspiring, how does all of this impact those of us over eighteen years old? DeVivo encourages more established playwrights to get involved with younger writers because “even if we’re not training future artists, empowering them with natural creativity is something that sometimes gets lost. I’m surprised by how many young people will come in and say they just don’t have the chance to express themselves creatively. So whether it’s through an organization like Playwrights Theatre or something in your own community, offer your expertise to young people as it has a reach far beyond simply creating new plays.”
Also, be sure to put down Wednesday, October 16th in your calendar for the first NJ Dramatists Meet and Greet hosted by Luna Stage followed by an opportunity to see member Nikkole Salter’s new play Lines in the Dust. More information to follow.
Photo: (above) The High School Winners of the NJ Young Playwrights Festival
Photo: (above) The winners and actors
Photo: (above) Dan Pellicano and Timothy Regan in Mechanical Advancement
Photo: (above) The Elementary and Junior High School Winners
DG National Report: Missouri by Hartley Wright
It is amazing how well our regional Guild members shone in the fringe of summer. It might not seem too noteworthy, considering more than twenty fringe festivals take place in seventeen states in America every year. What seems remarkable, however—after realizing Missouri is one of only three states producing multiple fringes—is taking note of how much national success has resulted for many of our local dramatists. With fringe festivals held in both St. Louis (StLou Fringe, in June) and Kansas City (KC Fringe, in July), and each venue welcoming acclaimed writers from both coasts, I believe our Guild’s local talent of playwrights and composers seem to garner more than a measurable amount of praise.
Established playwright Vicki Vodrey must love the KC Fringe Festival and the success this festival has birthed in her career. Her dark comedy, Hanky Panky, one of the top-rated and most popular plays here in 2010, was later performed at the Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF), receiving nominations for three MITF awards in the process. Vodrey’s Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven with Flat Jimmy Fallon became a KC Fringe standout in 2012, encored at the 2012 MITF, and was a finalist for inclusion in this year’s MITF lineup. This year Vodrey, one of five inaugural playwrights at the new Midwest Dramatists Center, debuted her newest play entitled, A Hard Day’s Night. It just might be her next ticket to ride.
Girl on Girl was a creative and zesty performance at this year’s KC Fringe, a trio of plays that included the newest work by playwright Michelle T. Johnson. During the 2012 Fringe campaign, her one act play, As the Guiding Light Turns, was a noteworthy, standout. In 2013, another one act play, Wiccans in the ‘Hood was not only popular at the KC Fringe, but performed also at New York’s Midwinter Madness Short Play Festival. Earlier this year Philadelphia’s BrainSpunk Theater produced an evening of Johnson’s work, presenting the playful and uplifting Wiccans with her much more existential and dreamlike one-act, Trading Races: From Rodney King to Paula Deen—a play nominated for three separate New York’s Connections Theatre Festivity Awards. Johnson, who is also an inaugural playwright of the Midwest Dramatists Center, is bound to become a KC Fringe favorite. My guess is Ms. Johnson is simply pleased they love her in Philly: she’s just been named BrainSpunk’s new Playwright in Residence, with includes their commitment to produce a new play by Johnson in its upcoming 2015 season.
This year’s KC Fringe also featured the new work of five additional regional Guild members who are becoming established as playwrights in their own right. The proficient and talented Bill Rogers—whose work has been featured at the Guild’s Friday Night Footlights—had his newest work, a musical entitled, Dangerous to Dance With, presented. Rogers, a playwright, lyricist and librettist, has had much of his work produced in this region, including four previous plays that debuted in the KC Fringes of 2009, 2010, and 2011. Catherine Browder, Glendora Davis, Lezlie Revelle and Nancy Parks had their own group of short plays produced in Turning Points, a striking consideration of how people face life-altering situations. These women have also collaborated for KC Potluck Productions. Potluck showcases scripts by emerging women playwrights from all over the United States through professional readings and staged productions.
The St Lou Fringe was privileged this year to feature the work of St. Louis Guild member Christopher Limber. Riffs in a set of 10 was a stylish and spicy fusion of jazz and poetic interludes. Joined by an ensemble of musicians and St. Louis club performers, Limber arranged a wonderful cabaret tribute reflecting and celebrating 1940’s jazz greats. This overwhelmingly talented playwright and composer is the Education Director for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, where his contributions as a playwright earned local awards for Outstanding Productions in 2010 and 2011.