In July of 2010, Arena Stage announced a revolutionary idea: five promising young playwrights would receive a regular salary from the company, including health insurance, and access to company resources so that they could work on their art without the distraction of the wolf at the door.
Three and a half years later, the jury is still out. Of the five original selectees, only Charles Randolph-Wright has produced a new play for Arena – Love in Afghanistan. But in the meantime, Arena took on a somewhat less ambitious project which is beginning to bear artistic fruit.
The Playwright’s Arena invited six Washington-area playwrights – Norman Allen, Randy Baker, Jacqueline E. Lawton, Heather McDonald, Danielle Mohlman and Shawn Northrip – under its umbrella. The group was given access to Arena staff (including Artistic Director Molly Smith) for advice and guidance, tickets to all Arena shows, a key to the building, office space to share among the six of them and, perhaps most importantly to each of them, feedback from five other playwrights.
“It’s not the traditional idea of a lonely playwright writing in a room and coming forth with a script,” Baker explained. “We’re getting feedback from people who are going through exactly the same thing we are.”
They also get feedback from dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke, who performs the same function on a regular basis for other Arena productions. Clarke usually gives that advice from his home city of Dublin – on Skype®, where, as Baker points out, he can “see our tortured body language.”
“I ask questions,” Clarke says. “It’s the dramaturg’s mission,” Clarke explains, to ask the questions which make the playwrights dig a little deeper.
Last weekend, Arena staged readings from the six playwrights’ work-in-progress. The writing was shown to advantage by strong casts – seventeen of the twenty-one actors were Equity members, and such area favorites as Helen Carey, Susan Lynskey, Katie DeBuys, Amy McWilliams, Evan Casey, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Jenna Sokolowski were among the players.
On Friday, the evening I attended, the three plays presented had a decidedly religious air to them – perhaps not surprising, given the origins of modern theater and, maybe, the cathedral-like building in which the playwrights did their work.
Allen’s play, The House Halfway, was the only one which did not originate in the Playwright’s Arena process. The play – about a Caribbean Island where people go to commit suicide – has been Allen’s white whale. You may remember it from its Source Festival production in 2012, or even from its 2006 Page-to-Stage incarnation, but it’s different now – much different, Allen says. The play features a Christian preacher (Peter Birkenhead) who lost his faith as he came to realize his sexual nature. We saw the climactic scene, which featured a witty and profound dialogue between Carey as the island’s proprietor and Lynskey as the cleric’s wife about whether Judas was a coward or a hero, who made it possible for Jesus to become the Redeemer. But it’s hard drawing a satisfying conclusion to a play about suicide. At one point, Allan said, he considered allowing all his characters to leave with their lives renewed – but when Baker pointed out that he was betraying the premise of his story, he went back to the drawing board. “I may never be done with this,” he later admitted.
McDonald’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity radiates the hope and optimism which characterized her An Almost Holy Picture, (Rep Stage, 2011). In a country torn by a war which has lasted for a hundred years, Layla (McWilliams), an art restorer, is tasked at gunpoint with repairing a battle-damaged Rembrandt, “The Two Marys” (a painting which does not exist in the real world). Though she is operating in an environment where civility and morality has been abandoned, and the only current art form is bashing in the brains of your enemies, Layla draws strength from Christianity depicted at its very dawn by the Rembrandt painting. McDonald opened with a witty scene in which Layla delivers a lecture, painting the war-torn land in colors both tragic and absurd. Indeed, McDonald confesses, she conceived of her new work as a series of scenes – “moments” – and originally hoped to use her membership in the Playwright’s Arena to draw connections between them. Now, she says, she’s principally interested in making the moments more vivid and satisfying.
Baker’s The Burning Road is not religious, but it has the same spooky sensibility that characterizes his other writing (such as Dream Sailors) and the work of Rorschach Theatre, where he is the co-Artistic Director. Rom-Lee (phonetic) is a Malaysian political activist and master puppeteer who has suddenly gone missing. His American son Devon (Tony Nam) – who had believed his father was dead – goes to Malaysia to search for him. He hires Rom-Lee’s protégé, an American named Jared (Matthew Bassett) to serve as his translator, and Jared’s American journalist wife (Yasmin Tuazon) tags along. A danger, powerful but not fully identified, haunts Devon’s quest: this is an adventure story, with spiritual and artistic overtones.
The weekend also featured plays-in-the-making by Jacqueline Lawton (The Hampton Years), Shawn Northrip (the punk-rock Titus Andronicus, Titus X), and Danielle Mohlman, (Stopgap). Lawton is developing Noms de Guerre, in which the rising political star Mira Hamilton (Lolita Marie Clayton) is at odds with her best friend, the journalist Jude (Kelly Renee Armstrong) over reproductive rights. In the midst of Mira’s campaign for governor, Jude discovers that Mira’s war-hero but war-stricken husband Douglas (Jason McIntosh) is linked to a massacre in Afghanistan. Mira faces profound moral and political choices.
Mohlman describes her work, Nexus, as a “chamber drama”, in which two people in their twenties (Jonathan Colby and Emma Kate Jackson) try to have a relationship – often involving their iPhones – in a complicated world.
Northrip, known for his outrageous takes on conventional works, is attempting something completely different in The Aristocrats! The Musical. “The Aristocrats,” of course, is well known as the world’s filthiest joke; the competition has traditionally been to tell the filthiest version of it. “Rather than competing to be the most disgusting version of the joke, a battle I thought unwinnable;” Northrip explains, “I set out to find the sweetest telling of the joke.”
According to David Snider, Director of Artistic Programming David Snider, the program will be extended for these playwrights through 2014, and in September, 2014, another six playwrights will be chosen to begin a new cycle in 2015.
More information at Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena
The weekend’s Kogod Cradle Series at Arena Stage, March 6 – 9, 2014:
The Burning Road, by Randy Baker, which featured Matthew Bassett, Jennifer Knight, Tony Nam, and Yasmin Tuazon.
The House Halfway, by Norm Allen, which featured Peter Birkenhead, Helen Carey, Jefferson Farber and Susan Lynskey.
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, by Heather McDonald, which featured Katie DeBuys, Amy McWilliams, and Salma Shaw.
The Aristocrats! The Musical, by Shawn Northrip, featuring Evan Casey, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Matthew Schleigh, and Jenna Sokolowski
Noms de Guerre, by Jacqueline Lawton, featuring Kelly Renee Armstrong, Lolita Marie Clayton, James Johnson and Jason McIntosh
Nexus, by Danielle Mohlman, featuring Jonathan Colby and Emma Kate Jackson.
Martha Knight was the stage manager, assisted by Karen Currie. Alexandria Wood was the production assistant.