DG National Report: Gulf Coast/Mississippi Delta by Rob Florence
Founded in 1991, the Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays is presented by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the only Equity theatre in the capital city of Montgomery. SWP explores the compelling experiences of many diverse Southern cultures. The program creates singular theatre which speaks to the region and reaches an audience from Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Regarding their regionally-minded mission, Associate Artistic Director Nancy Rominger comments: “The Southern story teller has been celebrated for decades. Our children cut their teeth on the likes of Harper Lee and Mark Twain. We hold up Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and William Faulkner as national treasures – men who helped the world understand Americans and the South. The Southern storyteller has a unique voice that varies greatly from one teller to the next and it is this variety that the Southern Writers’ Project aims to celebrate.”
SWP has featured many illustrious writers, including as Keith Josef Adkins, Doris Baizley, Carlyle Brown, Kia Corthron, Horton Foote, Ernest Gaines, Keith Glover, Barbara Lebow, Romulus Linney, Richard Marius, James McLure, Sena Jeter Naslund, John Henry Redwood, Eric Schmiedl, Lee Smith, and Regina Taylor. Plays developed at the Southern Writers’ Project have appeared Off-Broadway, on network television, in theatres across the country, and at the Olympics.
The Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays culminates in a three-day weekend each May. Because the program doesn’t commit to producing any of the workshopped plays, there’s little sense of competition between the works. However, in the last eight years since Geoffrey Sherman became Producing Artistic Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, A.S.F. has fully produced approximately half of the plays developed at Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays.
Dramatists Guild member and current Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s plays Gee’s Bend, The Furniture of Home, The Flag Maker of Market Street, Provenance, and Shine have all been through the Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays. Ms. Wilder states: “SWP is like home to me. While I’ve had a chance to workshop plays with other theatre companies, I feel a different sense of safety at SWP. The SWP process has served me well over the years. It’s given me a place to succeed, but it’s also given me a place to safely fail. Every artist should be so lucky.”
Dramatists Guild member and Alabama Shakespeare Festival Chief Operating Officer Michael Vigilant’s plays The Wedding Ring and Bear have benefitted from the Southern Writer’s Project. Mr. Vigilant explains, “SWP is a true gift to a playwright. The time and attention given to my work from a handpicked director, dramaturg and actors helped make it rehearsal ready. The experience was artistic collaboration at an optimal level.”
As The Southern Writers’ Project prepares for its 25th anniversary next year, they continue to seek out the voices which convey uniquely regional stories of today’s South. SWP accepts unproduced original plays written by Southern playwrights or which are set in the South dealing specifically with Southern issues, characters, or themes.
For complete information visit: www.southernwritersproject.net, particularly if you are a regional voice who Nancy Rominger characterizes as, “…varied as the changing face of our community and the world – a voice that speaks of gritty optimism and devastated dreams, of quiet solitude and wild celebrations, wrenching tears and gentle laughter.”
Photo: (above) Nikki E. Walker & Adria Vitlar in The Flag Maker of Market Street by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder (world premiere)
Photo: (above) Sarah Corey & Matt Dickson in In the Book Of by John Walch (world premiere)
Photo: (above) Bryan Terrell Clark & Shelly Gaza in Look Away by Robert Ford (reading)
Photo: (above) Hollis McCarthy & Adam Richman in The Dragonfly Tale by Lorey Hayes and Bobby Crear (reading)
DG National Report: Washington, D.C. by Gwydion Suilebhan
What does it take to get 60 or 70 dramatists in the same room at the same time? In DC recently, promising to help them all start to take control of their own fates did the trick.
On May 4 at the Kennedy Center, playwrights from both the DC and Baltimore regions gathered for a daylong workshop on a variety of subjects all centered around the notion of career empowerment. Speakers and panelists and attendees discussed and debated a wide variety of ways to stop “waiting for yes” from the American theater and start “saying yes to yourself.” It was an exciting six-hour conversation.
The first panel, moderated by playwright Brett Abelman, was devoted to playwrights producing their own work in fringe festivals all around the world. Abelman, a self-production veteran and the author of several popular blog posts about producing in the Capital Fringe Festival, moderated a discussion among playwrights Stephen Spotswood, Regie Cabico, Ann Fraistat, Bob Bartlett, and Laura Zam. They all shared advice both practical and inspirational, as well as a few war stories that served as cautionary tales for those among the group who’d never ventured into the world of self-production.
After an hour-long lunch, during which playwrights from throughout the region were able to mix-and-mingle and get to know one another better, playwright and nationally-known social media expert Devon Smith gave a detailed presentation about how playwrights can market themselves and develop their brands via any number of social media channels: not just Facebook and Twitter, but everything from Vine to Instagram to YouTube (and beyond). After her presentation, the group grilled her about tactics for specific platforms and reasons to keep exploring new tools.
Following Devon’s talk, we addressed one of the perpetual elephants in the room: money. Jojo Ruf – the executive and creative director of The Welders’ playwrights collective – led a discussion about how to raise funds for playwright-centered projects. Panelists included her Theater J artistic director and playwright Ari Roth, Longacre Lea artistic director and playwright Kathleen Akerley, and playwright/performer Anu Yadav. Although no one had any magic solutions to offer – because, of course, there aren’t any – there was terrific encouragement all around mixed into a discussion about crowd-funding tools, ways to “make the ask,” and reasons to keep going.
The conversation then moved to a discussion about local playwright-led initiatives. Moderator Renee Calarco – a co-founder of The Welders – spoke with her fellow Welder co-founder and playwright Caleen Jennings, Field Trip Theatre artistic director and playwright Danielle Mohlman, Wait Don’t Leave artistic director and playwright Joanna Castle Miller, and Fortune Cookie Collective co-founder Pooja Chawla. A few brief introductory questions about why each playwright on the panel founded her own company led to a passionate hour-long discussion about the necessity of new models for the development and production of plays, the transformation in the regional theater ecosystem, and the challenge of balancing organization-building with the demands of creativity: how to keep writing for other theaters, in other words, while you also make your own.
The day closed with straightforward community-building. Breakout groups led by DC’s young ambassador Noelle Viñas and Baltimore’s regional representative Brent Englar allowed playwrights from throughout the region to share their thoughts about how to move the region forward on a variety of fronts, from diversity to professional development to the need for writers groups outside the city. By the end of the event, new relationships had been forged between playwrights as far apart as southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia… and new initiatives designed to help playwrights take control of their own fates were founded, we hope, throughout the region!
DG National Report: Dallas/Ft.Worth by Teresa Coleman Wash
Some time ago I eluded to the planning of a statewide new play development opportunity for Guild members in Texas. Alas, the details of that probability are finally underway. Houston DG Regional Rep William Duell, San Antonio/Austin DG Regional Rep Sheila Rinear, and I have come together to host the inaugural Texas Playwrights Festival to be held in the summer of 2015. The submission process will begin mid-October through November 2014 and the guidelines are expected to be disseminated via email and social media outlets by the time this article is published. Wordsmyth Theater in Houston will be the repository for submissions to ensure a blind process. Participating playwrights will receive a staged reading in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, only four will be selected so be sure to connect with us on the DFW Dramatists Guild group page on Facebook as we flesh out more details.
Aside from that, there has been a flurry of new play development for Guild members in Dallas. It’s nice to see local playwrights creating their own opportunities and stepping outside of the boundaries placed many of us face. Jonathan Norton recently received a $15,000 grant (that he wrote himself, mind you) from Mid-American Arts Alliance for his new play Mississippi Goddamn, a fictional account of the events surrounding civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The script received a professional workshop reading at the South Dallas Cultural Center this summer and is scheduled for a full production in February 2015. Steven Young received a New York run this summer with his one-act play Under The Overpass. The script originated at TeCo Theatrical Productions’ 12th Annual New Play Competition in February and had the good fortune of being selected to participate in the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company’s Short Play Festival in New York in July. The production brought about a myriad of possibilities for Young to collaborate with several celebrated producers in the industry (I’ve been sworn to secrecy). WingSpan Theatre staged two readings of Arnold Shelby’s Ropes & Stones this past Spring. The script is a two-character play set in the home of 66-year old artists who have lived together since 1969 during a massive New York storm. Derek Ropes and Judy Stone open up about career, money, sex, aging and having a good life from beginning to end. More information can be found at www.ropesandstone.com.
Overall, the commitment to original work is at an all-time high in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. The Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop at the Dallas Theater Center sent out a call for scripts this summer and is now in its second year. The program is an exciting opportunity for DFW dramatists to hone their craft, make connections, and learn from their peers in a rigorous and supportive environment. Under the tutelage of DTCs Playwright-in-Residence, award-winning dramatist and Mellon Foundation Fellow Will Power, participants are guided through a series of activities designed to strengthen their writing skills and sharpen their self-reflective dramaturgical eye. Uptown Players recently announced programming for their 4th Annual Pride Performing Arts Festival with run dates of September 12 – 20, and TeCo Theatrical Productions (my stomping ground) will present its 1st Annual PlayPride LGBT Festival at the Bishop Arts Theatre early September.
If you haven’t already, connect with us on Facebook, we’re up to 134 members and there’s lots of sharing going on. Find us at DFW Dramatists Guild Members.
DG National Report: Chicago by Douglas Post
Seven years ago, the Guild had virtually no presence in the city of Chicago. We had our membership cards, which we were proud to carry. We had our magazine, which was always informative. And we had the main office in New York where we knew people were working tirelessly on our behalf. But we felt disconnected. Isolated. A little lonely and unloved out here in the hinterlands where the off-Loop theatre movement had taken on a life of its own. All of that changed when Gary Garrison came on as Executive Director of Creative Affairs and pointed out that the Guild couldn’t really refer to itself as a national organization unless it had national representation.
I believe I was the first one to get the call. “Would you consider becoming a rep for your region?” Gary asked. I hesitated. Frankly, it took me a month or two to respond and not because I wasn’t interested. In fact, I was too interested and knew that, if I took on this assignment, it could, potentially, consume me. That is because there was so much work to be done. Dramatists in this part of the country were hungry for help. They really wanted to make a connection, not only with each other, but also with those people who are in a position to get their work read, developed and done. Finally, I agreed and am very glad that I did.
Since 2007, we have held 26 Town Hall Meetings in theatrical venues all across Chicagoland where we have focused on such topics as “Art and Commerce,” “Making Our Own Luck,” “Self-Production,” “Playwrights Who Wear More Than One Hat,” and “Thinking Outside the Submission Box.” We’ve had intimate conversations with Stephen Schwartz, Doug Wright, Mark Hollmann, Greg Kotis, John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim. We also had some illuminating panel discussions with artistic directors and literary managers. On three occasions, we’ve held Meet and Greets with the League of Chicago Theatres where we’ve had one-on-one time with the movers and shakers at a number of institutions. On thirteen occasions, we’ve hosted Director/Dramatist Exchanges where, in the form of a low-key cocktail party, our playwrights, composers and lyricists have gotten to know local directors who are actively looking for new plays and musicals. We’ve tried to help our members help themselves. We have endeavored to plant the seeds of future relationships. And, if the reports we’ve received are accurate, we have been largely successful.
One of our most popular undertakings has been the Discount Ticket Program, which is now in its fifth year. At first, fourteen theatres signed on. Then it was 25, then 28, then 36. This past season, 47 companies agreed to make their productions more affordable for our members. Some offer $10 tickets to select performances, some $15 tickets, and some 2-for-1. Some offer half-price tickets, some $10 off, and some $5 off. And a few theatres have even started to give us complimentary tickets to their previews.
Our region has grown. We have gone from serving membership in Illinois to including Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan in every invitation and communication. As previously stated, there is a great appetite for this sort of activity, and our dramatists have underscored this point by traveling from these four neighbor states to attend the events we’ve put together.
If all of this “we” stuff makes it sound like I’m referring to myself and my big toe, rest assured that none of this could have been possible without the steadfast support of Gary, the DG staff, and the DG Council. But, most importantly, it couldn’t have happened without our members here in the Midwest. They are ones who show up. They are ones who make it work.
In stepping down from this position and turning things over to my good friend and colleague Cheryl Coons, I realize how very lucky I am. I’ve been fortunate enough to be engaged in a task that I found to be tremendously meaningful. And, for that, I thank you.
Photo: a recent Chicago Director/Dramatist Exchange at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photographer: Anita Evans
DG National Report: Boston by Hortense Gerardo
Notes from the Field: Master Class Lessons in the Art Toward Nothing
An artist residency can certainly teach you something about your own process of writing. During the month of June, 2014, I had the opportunity of sequestering myself in the Canadian mountains at the Banff Centre to focus on writing my latest work: book and lyrics for a full - length musical.
However, dreams of hermitage in a little writing hut were quickly displaced by the reality of the rich, cultural environment at the Banff Centre. The grand, unifying theme I discerned from attending lectures and performances by artists from around the world, in various fields like music, social theory, dance, translation, and the visual arts, was the concept of reduction to achieve a kind of purity – of sound, of movement, and of line.
In the work of newly-acclaimed artists as well as the grand masters I witnessed bursts of inspired creative energy that were harnessed by an actively disciplined arc toward the constrained.
Here are several examples:
Marcus Gilmore, percussionist prodigy and grandson of the legendary jazz drummer, Roy Haynes, remains remarkably still while generating a broad textural range of percussive sounds.
Lauren Berlant, a professor of English and social theorist discussed the ways in which a flat affect may express power but also vulnerability. Deadpan allows the viewer to attribute a richer interpretation of emotion than might otherwise be achieved when a specific set of facial arrangements is deployed.
Louise Lecavalier, a Canadian modern dancer, translated the color blue into a tour de force of pure movement. As she explains, “I want the body to say everything it wants to say without censuring it, hoping that it might point to new paths, new ways of getting to the essential core of things.”
Stephen Kessler, translator of poems by Luis Cernuda and Vicente Aleixandre, tries to distill lines to their absolute, emotional essence, even “at the expense of word for word transcription.” 
Kay Walkowiak, an Austrian filmmaker and sculptor eschewed a musical soundtrack in his film, Minimal Vandalism, in which his sculptures were intentionally defaced by a skate boarder in favor of the haptic environmental sounds, thus elevating the piece from an entertainment video on YouTube to a work of art.
It would seem at first glance that an exception to this trend toward reductionism was the work of Canadian fine arts painter, Douglas Williamson, who stated, “I am not an artist, but a Maker.” However, he went on to explain that he disavows the trend in conceptual arts toward deskilling in favor of a retro emphasis on technical skill. In this sense, he embraces the notion of kitsch in its highest form. 
The lessons learned from these artists apply directly to the process of revision and editing. At the Kennedy Center Playwright Intensive years ago, Gary Garrison instructed us to rewrite a play beginning just before the point we originally thought was the climax. In all instances, the shortened plays were better as well as, obviously, tauter.
This stretch to economy applies to dialogue as well. A former mentor, Laura Harrison taught to actively strike out the use of the word, “that” in our scripts.
Derek Walcott would bark out “Scansion!” during readings, so that our lines read like poetry.
On a related note, Gwydon Suilebhan, Director of the New Play Exchange, along with Executive Directors, Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf of the National New Play Network, have launched an online site that will streamline communication among three major sectors of the theatre community. The New Play Exchange will enable ease of access and transparency between: 1) writers and other creators of new work, 2) dramaturgs, literary managers, producers and other enablers of new work, and 3) theaters and producing organizations. This long-awaited user-friendly website promises to give life to new work in the American theatre.
Einstein once said, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” More simply, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
In art as in life, less truly is more.
Photo: My Hermitage
DG National Report: Western New York by Donna Hoke
Central New York representative Aoise Stratford and I have been working diligently behind the scenes for the past six months or so to create a new program for our regions: the Dramatists Guild New York State Roving Readings series. We hatched the idea at the Dramatists Guild conference in October 2013, and have spent the time since then enlisting theaters, soliciting plays, talking to directors, and nailing down dates.
Dramatists Guild members residing in our two regions – or nearby environs – were invited to submit blind copies of scripts that had had at least one production. Our reasoning is that we aren’t looking to help playwrights develop scripts, but rather relationships with other theaters in the state, as well as the larger New York State playwriting community. As such, no participating playwright will have a reading in his/her hometown.
During the submission window, we found three eager volunteer theaters: Road Less Traveled in Buffalo, the Kitchen in Ithaca, and Geva Theatre Center in Rochester. To start, we developed a system for theaters to choose from as many plays as possible, but with no chance of duplicate selection or selection of a playwright from that theater’s city. Once plays were chosen, we recruited directors who were charged with casting and rehearsing for reading night, and had the pleasure of informing the playwrights.
“I am thrilled that The Scavenger’s Daughter is getting more exposure, especially since that exposure is at the esteemed Geva Theatre Center,” says Gary Earl Ross. “The play is about an African-American family who face problems that have nothing to do with being African-American. It is a murder mystery that involves Alzheimer’s, mental illness, and family dysfunction, as well as a social drama that explores the realities of aging. My hope is that it will find more and more audiences as issues of elder care take center stage in our country’s health care debate.”
Darryl Schneider, whose Artie Award-winning play, Clean Break, will be read at the Kitchen in Ithaca, was equally enthusiastic: “I’m honored my play is included in the first Roving Reading series. I’m eager to see how a different director and set of actors interpret the play and how the audience reacts. I hope to gain new insights into this play.”
After a month of date wrangling, we announced the schedule for the inaugural Dramatists Guild New York State Roving Readings Series:
• May 20 at the Kitchen Theatre, Ithaca: Clean Break, by Darryl Schneider of Buffalo
• September 8 at Geva Theatre, Rochester: The Scavenger’s Daughter, by Gary Earl Ross of Buffalo
• September 15 at Road Less Traveled Theater, Buffalo: Happy Birthday, Tina Marie, by Craig Thornton of Watertown
In the next issue of The Dramatist, Central New York rep Aoise Stratford will deliver part two of this regional update when she reports on the first reading in Ithaca. Please watch your email for details about the remaining reading dates and consider coming to support theater and playwrights from your state. We’re excited about this program; if you come to reading, be sure to introduce yourselves!
DG National Report: Utah by Julie Jensen
The theme of this issue might appropriately be applied to the feeding of playwrights, as in nurturing new plays and encouraging future work. Local universities in Utah are making a significant effort in that direction. The University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and Weber State University have all been active participants in the development of new work by local playwrights. It’s a relationship that’s unique and valued, giving playwrights what they cannot get in professional settings: much more time with actors, directors, dramaturgs, and enhanced opportunities to rewrite based on experiences with other collaborators in the process.
The University of Utah’s New Play Workshop, run by playwright Tim Slover, has for a number of years helped to develop the work of several local playwrights: Fae Engstrom, Kathleen Cahill, Mathew Ivan Bennett, Mike Dorrell, and Elaine Jarvik. The plays by three playwrights are selected ahead of time, two by students and one by a local professional. Each new play gets five hours of table work, then is given ten hours of exploration, where actors are on their feet, directors and dramaturgs engaged. The process ends with a rehearsed reading, directed and acted by students, the preparation for which takes an additional two to three hours. Elaine Jarvik, whose most recent play, Two Stories, has just completed the process, is enthusiastic about the method used by Slover and the intelligent response of the students. “Slover himself,” she adds, “is an amazing resource, able to respond to a play on both the micro and macro level.”
Melissa Larson workshopped her adaptation of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice at Brigham Young University before a major production there. The workshop is co-taught by playwright George Nelson and dramaturg Janine Sobeck. Plays are submitted ahead of time, six are chosen. Three plays are worked in two different “pods.” Each play is given two hours of work with actors and dramaturgs each week for six to seven weeks. The nature of that work depends on the needs of the play. “Sometimes it’s feedback, sometimes physical exploration, sometimes improvisation,” says Melissa Larson. The work culminates in a staged reading of each play featuring undergraduate actors. Larson, who has been a part of the workshop process several times, both as a student and as a working writer, is enthusiastic about its value and grateful for the experience with the other collaborators.
Weber State University, located 45 miles north of Salt Lake City, produced an entire season of new work this year. One of those plays was by a local writer, a commission by Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences. It’s a play written by Julie Jensen, an adaptation of a novel by Kathryn Erskine Mockingbird. The piece focuses on a young girl with autism and is told from her point of view, meaning that group scenes are frightening and chaotic and that the central character has odd physical traits and tics. The director of the project, Tracy Callahan, cast the workshop production in December and worked for three and a half months with the actors. Much of the work was physical because of the demands of defining the world of the play. The work was gratifying, both the process and the product. The play now goes on to a production at Kennedy Center with Weber State’s Tracy Callahan directing there as well.
University theatres are devising important methods of developing to new work. Indeed, they’re in a unique position to make a major contribution to the American theatre. In the process, they’re forging gratifying relationships between working writers, theatre students, departments of theatre, and, yes, even professional theatres.
DG National Report: Portland by Francesca Sanders
Ashland, Oregon is a favorite destination for any theatre lover. The idyllic setting and non-stop performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draw over 400,00 audience members each year.
On April 5th it was also the gathering spot for Dramatists Guild members as the Guild hosted the discussion “Authenticity: a Writer’s Quandary in the American Theatre.” Authors from nearby converged for a lively discussion where Lue Douthit, literary manager of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was our guest speaker.
As a backdrop for this event, members were offered half price tickets to see Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play Water by the Spoonful, as well as The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry.
Water by the Spoonful explores (among many other things) the process of drug recovery and dissonance. While Ms. Hansberry (best remembered for A Raisin in the Sun) illustrates a man’s foray into the “Bohemian” lifestyle while managing to also address topics of ethnicity, suicide, politics and homosexuality. Of neither woman would it be said that they spoke only to what they had experienced personally.
Our discussion asked many questions. Some of them were: Has political correctness skewed this discussion in recent years? Must we limit our imagination as dramatists? Is there censorship inherent in some aspects of this topic? Can we “speak” for a group we are not a member of? Are there “credentials” that make a voice “authentic?” If we write a character, do they represent more than the question we’re trying to ask? And finally, as artists can we explore all realms of the human psyche, regardless of those we have experienced personally?
These questions obviously must be answered by each individual artist. But I wonder where we might be if Shakespeare had been told he couldn’t author Othello, since he was clearly not a Moor. Or perhaps be told Lady Macbeth might be better drawn and layered if penned by a woman?
Variations on this topic are cropping up all over the United States. As a playwright who’s sat on many panels about diversity in the theatre and/or multi-cultural aspects of the theatre, I find the issue fascinating. The questions posited seem to be ones for the ages. And while I may not have any answers, I do have another question…when trying to illuminate the human condition, isn’t it best to remind ourselves that what’s primary here is the word human? Regardless of anything else, that’s a topic we can all write about “authentically.”
As a nice bookend to the discussion, Ms. Douthit mentioned she’d been a proud member of the Dramatists Guild for over 25 years and valued it greatly.