“Already I feel like this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Allyson Currin, local playwright.
The Welders, the D.C-based, playwright-run collective previously profiled by DCTS here, is kicking off their innovative project – in which the five founding writers will take turns as artistic director of the company, staging one work of his or her choosing – with Currin at the helm. She has chosen to put on her play The Carolina Layaway Grail.
“It just felt the most Welder-y,” she says. “It’s smart to start out the Welders bill of fare with a play about stories.”
The tale concerns Diana, a young woman from North Carolina (Currin’s home state) who embarks on a strange odyssey in search of a curious artifact, namely, her grandfather’s snow globe, which he believes contains the spirits of his ancestors. It also “looks at the hero’s journey, and tweaks the form of the journey a little bit,” says Curin. “…and explores the hero’s journey through the eyes of somebody who doesn’t necessarily believe in the grail she’s chasing.”
It may be even more appropriate as a first selection for the company if you think of what The Welders are pursuing as a kind of grail – perhaps not an unattainable holy one, but a quest object all the same. Currin says, “We are building something that gives playwrights agency, and a small measure of control.” Their website states their official mission is to “establish an evolving, alternative platform for play development and production,” which sounds deceptively modest for an initiative that has gotten as much buzz as it has in both the national new-play and DC communities.
“Everybody’s been really generous with The Welders, every step of the way the community’s really been embracing us,” says Currin. “It’s been deeply moving, actually.”
Donors eager to see the project take off, the backing of four other playwrights plus Executive and Creative Director Jojo Ruf, attention from American Theatre magazine. It should come as no surprise that, with all that, when asked if she feels any pressure to succeed starting first out of the gate, Currin replies emphatically:
“Unholy pressure! Profound pressure. Absolutely yes. I’m very very very nervous. …I feel like we keep joking, calling me the canary in the coalmine. But if I completely fall on my face, you know, and this play doesn’t do well, what will that do to the Welders as an organization? Yeah, I feel a lot of pressure.”
Currin probably need not worry. Her work is familiar to D.C. audiences going back for two decades, and she has two Helen Hayes award nominations for Best New Play (Amstel in Tel Aviv, 1997 and Church of the Open Mind, 2002)under her belt. This is not to paint the wrong picture of Currin – she’s excited as much as anything for this opportunity, confident in the quality of this play, and delighted with the skill and dedication of what she calls her “dream team.”
“With new plays, you need believers. You really do. And I feel like the Grail team is full of believers,” she says, of her slate of local actors, designers and production staff, including her director, Sonya Robbins. “There’s no one in there who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.”
What’s more, Currin has the support of the other Welders, who she describes as having “bonded” over the past several months of working together.
“We’ve had these discussions about what matters to us in the art, what matters to us as artists. We do share so many views, we’re in agreement on so many of our ideas about art and theatre and how powerful theatre can be and what we want to bring to it.”
The way the Welders have set their program up is such that they rotate more than just the Artistic Director position; there are also two line producer slots and two seats on the board for members. Renee Calarco and Bob Bartlett hold the positions of Currin’s line producers, while Gwydion Suilebhan and Caleen Sinnette Jennings fill the board member roles this time around.
It’s clear that Currin draws strength from the collaboration and cooperation that seems to be the core of The Welders model. “As part of our process, before even auditions, we had the Welders get together in somebody’s living room,” she notes. “In this case it was mine, and we read [The Carolina Layaway Grail] ourselves. …We know each other’s work really intimately because we played the parts at one point.”
“I feel like they’re taking a risk on, but I’m taking a risk on them, too, so we’re all on the tightrope together,” she says. “Being a playwright is a lonely thing in a lot of ways, or a lone thing, but these guys are taking the jump with me. I’ve never had that before and it does feel very very unique.”
The script itself will have undergone a long journey between its original inspiration and the final product. Its origin is surprisingly humble, yet definitely appropriate. Seven to eight years ago, the play was “literally born from a trip to the District of Columbia DMV.”
Currin goes on to tell the story. “I was trying to change my name when I got married. I had every document I needed, I called ahead, and I just couldn’t get this one simple thing done. …The DMV has improved since then, I must say, all fairness to the DMV.”
March 20 – April 5, 2014
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE,
Washington, DC 20002
Wednesdays thru Sundays
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Everything connects up when Currin recalls what had brought her to the DMV in the first place. “The problem was I had a North Carolina marriage license, that’s what the problem was,” she says. “So there you go, Carolina marriage, DC DMV.”
From that inspiration, Currin went on to write first a short monologue and then, later, at the suggestion of local playwright Kathleen Akerley, expand the work into a full-length. Developed later at First Draft at Charter Theatre and at the Hub Theatre in Virginia, the play went through several title changes. It was just The Grail Play at first, then The Redneck Holy Grail for a while, then another name Currin has forgotten, and finally, she says, “Carolina Layaway Grail… a title that came from my fellow Welders.”
Those seven to eight years of preparation for the play’s debut may seem a long time, although at the same time, for The Welders’ sake, the timing may have been just right.
“I felt like [the play] was pretty ready” before the Welders process began, Currin says, “and that’s a big part of the reason I’m first. We’re trying to figure out our lineup, and you can talk about logistics all you want,” she says, adding that it comes down to “who’s got something ready to go, and it’s me.”
Rehearsal is well underway for the debut production. Currin works closely with Robbins to revise and tweak her script, receiving influence and feedback from the actors in the rehearsal room. Soon, she and Robbins will agree on a cut-off date, after which the script will be locked in. And then the play will go onstage, and the audience will come through the doors. Currin looks forward to seeing how people react, in particular to the play’s ending.
“I happened on this ending in the first draft and it’s never really changed,” she says. “It’s really touching and I’m really eager to see the audience respond to that. I mean, Nora [Achrati, who plays Diana] can’t ever do it without crying, and I hope that’s a good indicator that the audience will be moved by it too.”
Once the play is open, some of the pressure, at least, will be off of Currin – at least until the next Welders show, which Currin will assist on.
“The thing I like is 4/5 of my time as a Welder is me producing other artists’ work,” she says.
After that, Currin says she wants “to get [the play] published, I want to see other productions… I hope that the attention that the Welders have garnished locally and even beyond DC will help generate interest in the script. It’s a play about hope and home and belief, and I think that’s a timeless play, always. It’s not a play that’s stuck at any one time… It’s a play about finding something to believe in, and it’s a play about the importance of your place historically speaking, home and place and sense of self and finding your roots, and attaching to them in a profound way.”
“You always want a play to have a life afterwards,” she adds. “And that’s a challenge… it’s easier to get first productions that it is to get seconds.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Currin parses out the play’s title this way: “Her grail is on layaway,” she says. “It’s not an immediate gratification grail.”
The Welders work hard, says Currin. And – considering that the entire organization will be handed off to five new playwrights once the three-year cycle is over – they are working towards something greater than simply this one next production, however unique it may be, and however much pressure may be on it. and are united in that none of them are afraid of diving in or getting their hands dirty. “We’re all workhorses, nobody’s afraid of hard work,” Currin says. “That’s definitely part of being a Welder. You don’t complain, you find out what needs to be done, you roll up your sleeves and you go do it, whether it’s glamorous or not.”
It’s a lot of work, but a lot of reward. Currin describes the five writers as maintaining their individual styles, while still discovering common “Welders-esque” elements between them, such as an inclination toward writing comedies with “something really dark or serious or painful lurking” underneath. Rotating leadership yet dependent on each other; consisting of mid-career playwrights who are yet in need of more opportunities; focusing on productions here-and-now yet intended to continue ever onwards – The Welders are full of contradictions. But, ultimately, for Currin, at least, it sounds like the artistic freedom, contrasting with the community pressure, is the real prize that The Welders have won for themselves.
“It’s kind of a really great thing to be told,” says Currin. “You’re the Welder-in-charge for your slot, and you can do… Whatever. You. Want. That’s like letting the playwright loose in a candy store.”