Each year in October, the Playwrights’ Center invites audience into the play development process through our PlayLabs festival. The festival features three brand-new plays by three of our Core Writers, which each receive a week and a half of development and rehearsal and two free public readings. Each writer has a chance to hear the play and the audience response, do some rewrites, re-rehearse, and come back for another presentation.
This year, the three featured plays are Alice Tuan’s A HUMBLING IN ST. PAUL, Jason Gray Platt’s TAKE CARE, and Jen Silverman’s IN THE TIME OF THE VOLCANO. Public performances run October 23-29. Visit pwcenter.org/playlabs to sign up for tickets.
In addition to these three plays, the final event of the festival is the Playwriting Fellows Showcase. It’s a mix tape of timely work from nine brave and curious playwrights: Our four Jerome Fellows, two Many Voices Fellows, two McKnight Fellows in Playwriting, and our McKnight National Residency and Commission recipient. Each fellow will share five minutes of their work, which will be performed by a company of the Twin Cities’ top talent.
To introduce you to the featured fellows, we’ve done a mini-interview with each of them. Read on to meet these exciting artists, and don’t forget to join us for the Showcase!
McKnight Fellow in Playwriting
Works include: at the very bottom of a body of water, q u e r e n c i a: an imagined autobiography about forbidden fruits, #nowall
Benjamin is a Jewtino of Guatemalan heritage with one foot in realism and the other in the supernatural realm. Flavor: a super-serious-pitch-black core coated with tangy-childlike whimsy.
How do you make time for writing/dreaming/creating in your life?
I think creating is the natural order of my life; it's absolutely essential. I wouldn't feel human if I didn't make time to make/write/fantasize. Even when working a full time job and doing countless side projects, I'd force myself awake 20 mins earlier than necessary to get morning pages in, then my characters' voices would visit me in the shower, something would catch my eye as I'd walk to work and I'd snap a quick photo, and I carried a notebook everywhere I went to capture those fleeting bits of inspiration when they visited. All these ingredients would then culminate in a play. One of my playwriting teachers in Seattle, Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth, would often say, "Ben, it's like you write your plays in your sleep." But on a very serious/practical level, I don't watch TV, movies, or read anything superfluous anymore—I only engage in activities that are too compelling to be ignored. I've gotten really good at saying "No thanks" and I've reclaimed so much time for creating my own work by doing this.
Works include: You For Me For You, Catch As Catch Can, This Exquisite Corpse
Innovation of form interests me as much as fresh content. Moreover, for me, form is itself powerful content.
YOU FOR ME FOR YOU recently ran at the Guthrie with Theater Mu, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and at the National Theater of Korea. Did you notice a difference in how Korean, American, and British audiences react to the play?
What I found really revealing and quite moving is that each audience has found itself in the play. People in Seoul asked me if I drew on Korean folk tales to come up with the talking well, the talking frog, the rice orchestra, etc. People in London asked me if Minhee’s fall down a well was inspired by Alice’s tumble down a rabbithole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. People have also asked me if I was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which also features a well that gives way to other dimensions of space and time. The honest truth is that none of those influenced me. I have only recently read the Murakami novel because of the question was posed to me. I never considered the obvious parallel with Alice in Wonderland. And I’m seriously behind on my knowledge of Korean folk tales. My intention was to tap into elemental human motivations and impulses, as well as to push my imagination to travel widely. It is reassuring, in a way, that I stumbled on literary images and tropes that are, frankly, universal.
Works include: The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, Purple Cloud, Transmissions in Advance of the 2nd Great Dying
Jessica is: a maker of mythical, metaphysical, multiracial plays; a co-founder and director of Other Tiger Productions; the type of artist who writes to discover.
Tell us a bit about your new play Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying. How does theater allow you to engage with difficult or frightening topics like climate change?
Here’s a little blurb: Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying is an epic play that merges mixed-race identity issues, science, and global politics to tell a story that spans 300 million years. Through three interconnecting stories, Transmissions suggests that our grief helps us find the power to change. Widowed DAWN works though grief to gain a better understanding of the men she’s lost—her husband to cancer and her father to rising sea water. Her mother, SONIA ST. CLAIRE, grapples with her legacy when she learns that her inventions—safe, clean processes for natural gas and shale oil extraction—are actually not so clean, and not so safe. And the eternal LIGHT OF THE MOON—a being who experiences geological time and has spent the past 4.5 billion years as friend and companion to his beloved Earth—discovers that in 400 years—in the blink of an eye— a “so-called intelligent species” has set off a chain of events that could very possibly top the death toll of the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction (which eradicated 96% of life on the planet). His choice—to get involved in the fight for Earth’s survival—brings the three stories together toward an earth-quaking conclusion. Transmissions is a commission with Mixed Blood Theatre.
Climate change is enormous, scientific, and very complex. It can be difficult to wrap a mind around—to really feel it in a heart or a gut. The form of theatre is really good at generating heart and gut feelings, and can even help us empathize with people who are very different from us. Transmissions tries to harness this unique power and provoke empathy for a being who experiences time in a way we cannot—who can really see and feel the earth heat up over 400 years. My hope is that by empathizing with this character, an audience will also gain new gut and heart feelings about the realities of climate change.
McKnight Fellow in Playwriting
Early Morning Song, In Which ______ and Others Discover the End, ENCYCLOPEDIA
Rachel is an experimental writer and interdisciplinary artist who often collaborates with dancers, visual artists, musicians, fellow writers, and alleged non-artists to explore new performative vocabularies.
You collaborate with musicians often. What does music bring to the theatrical process?
well, first of all, most of my work is developed in collaborative processes—with musicians, dancers, visual artists—in which the sound, movement, images, text, and structure are all developed alongside and in service to each other. I prefer working this way over treating the script as some kind of sacred originating authority; at heart, it’s a practice in working horizontally rather than hierarchically.
music also expresses things that text just can't. I'm always interested in breaking language, experimenting with how it can function beyond familiar human habits of meaning-making, as in poetry, tuning into other dimensions of knowledge and experience and awareness. so I love stretching my own relationship to language by writing for and in conversation with music. and sometimes I realize what's really needed is to just strip away all the words and make more nonverbal space.
I also find that audiences tend to really trust music. whether by nature or nurture or both, they almost always know they can have an experience of music without needing to "get" it in any kind of literal, logical, explicable way (of course, whether they "like" the music or not is another question). unfortunately, that's just not always the case with theater; when a play doesn't operate according to certain storytelling norms or theatrical conventions, many audiences feel more anxiety about whether or not they "get" what it's doing or saying instead. as an experimental writer, I'm very interested in making sure my audiences feeling welcomed into the exploration with me—so music sometimes can serve as an inviting portal, a hospitable signal that perhaps something different is happening, and that perhaps there's not one single "right" way to experience it.
Tim J. Lord
Works include: We declare you a terrorist…, Peloponnesus, Down in the face of God
Tim’s plays are full of permanent malcontents and journeyers, people escaping and being overwhelmed by and laughing at the fates written for them by the places that made them.
You engage with a number of myths and themes from various classical and religious texts (Thebes, Sparta, Hell, etc). What can these ancient elements add to a contemporary play?
Anne Bogart talks about how we're "living in the space between mythologies," and that it's the artists who shape the new myths. That's an idea that resonates with me as I've long felt stuck between old ideologies and whatever is to come. So when I engage myth and religion I usually tear them open to look at the insides and see how they work. I ask why their themes are considered "universal," and why or whether they're still relevant—usually parts of them are or the act of interrogation grants insight into why they once were relevant. Then I put these myths back together in my plays—usually resetting them in contemporary, Midwestern location. Sometimes you'll recognize the foundational myth; sometimes you won't. Hopefully, though, the original myth shines a new light on our contemporary moment.
Many Voices Fellow
Works include: The Danger: A Homage to Strange Fruit; America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of The American Negro; The Grimm Adaptation Series: Bones, Bonez, Bone$
Stacey writes plays about being Black, being weird, being oppressed, and being repressed.
She writes plays about you.
How does being a parent influence your writing?
Having a Black son (and two brothers, and four nephews) pushes me to dig a little deeper when creating Black male characters. I try to craft them into the complex beings they are and give them as fair a shot as I’d want someone to give my child. My son produces music and writes songs. We talk at length about the necessity of honesty in what we create. I always push him towards writing from a place in authentic to his experience. Because of this, I have no choice but strive toward the same in my own work.
Works include: If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, This Land Was Made, Where Butterflies Go in the Winter
Tori holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama. Her plays are influenced by the notion that Michelle Obama might fancy herself an audience member one day.
How do you approach work based on historical figures or events?
I begin all my plays the same, no matter the subject, and that's with a question(s) that consumes and excites me. I studied sociology in college where I learned the value of ethnographic work and research. If possible, I commit to both before writing the play.
McKnight National Residency and Commission Recipient
Works include: Sojourners, Her Portmanteau, runboyrun
Mfoniso writes plays that complicate our understanding of the West-African experience in America. Mfoniso writes plays that cost worlds and heal universes. Mfoniso writes plays you can see yourself within.
Tell us about your 9-play Ufot Family Cycle. What inspired the cycle, and what is coming next?
I began writing the Ufot Family Cycle around 2009. It started as one play, The Grove, and I discovered I had more stories to tell. A trilogy was born, inclusive of 3 plays [Sojourners, The Grove and runboyrun]. Then it expanded to 9 plays! The cycle chronicles the lives of a family of Nigerian [Ibibio] immigrants as they live, love and have children in America.
Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay
Many Voices Fellow
Works include: Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals, Hmong Lao Friendship Play
Saymoukda is a Lao American refugenius who uses theater to interrogate and amplify refugee narratives through a survivor’s perspective.
A few years ago, your play Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals was produced by Theater Mu. What was the inspiration behind the trilogy?
The Kung Fu Zombie-verse is an anthology of stage plays: Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals is about the consequences of the Secret War in Laos; Kung Fu Zombies vs Shaman Warrior examines how mental illness is perceived as demonic possession/curse/bad karma by Laotians; and Kung Fu Zombies vs Traveler explores the next wave of human diaspora.
Visit pwcenter.org/fellows-showcase-2017 to reserve your seats.