Someone took a chance on Arthur Miller. Someone took a chance on Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon and August Wilson and Eugene O’Neill. None of the plays by these writers existed before the 20th century, but now they're considered classics. At some point, somewhere along the line, every one of them not only had their first production, but their second and third. Someone took a chance on them.
One of the many reasons why the Minnesota Fringe Festival each year is such an exciting time for me is that audiences seem not only welcoming but hungry to see new work. The audiences are there. Someone just needs to take a chance and feed their hunger.
As much as I was weaned on Simon and Williams, and love Kushner and Wilson, I admire these new, local playwrights in equal measure — Anne Bertram, Todd Hughes, Daniel O’Neil, Nick Ryan, and Matt Weerts. I read them voraciously. I delight in each new production. If I were given the opportunity to program a theater season, or humbly suggest one to someone else, these five writers are where I would start.
ALFRED - It's safer in the theater.
MAGGIE - Yes. And it's safer to do musicals, and it's safer to say nothing, stay quiet.
ALFRED - We're doing commentary, Maggie. Don't confuse it with activism.
10/14 by Daniel O’Neil. A group of theater artists in a converted New York City warehouse prepare for their opening night, but the city is hit by an attack which turns the world around them inside out.
This story leaps off the page and fires up the audience’s imagination because it wrestles with the question of how we’d all behave during what seems like the end of the world. O’Neil does this with humor, heart, clear-eyed pragmatism and poetry – because those are the tools we’d all be using to remind ourselves we’re human and to connect with others. The thing that always boggles my mind about O’Neil’s work is that he’ll take the things I have the least patience for - theater about theater, art about artists, political commentary, and stagecraft that draws attention to itself - and turn them on their head in a way that rivets my attention. Some people will hide; some people will take to the streets. Who will you be, and why? I’d start the run quite deliberately on 9/11, and end it on 10/13.
The day after that is up to all of us.
MOOTI - The man is wiping your drill with oil on a rag. You watch his hands, flicking and fussing. And you think, I will die if he doesn't cross the room and touch me. Now. He looks up. Sees the look in your eyes. Crosses the room and touches you. But it could have gone the other way. You can feel what it would have felt like. Not to be touched.
Homesickness by Anne Bertram. A peculiar family’s well-ordered existence is upended when the long-absent grandmother, a freelance secret agent, resurfaces and takes her granddaughter away as part of her latest mission.
The precision of Bertram’s writing is its most breathtaking aspect. There is not one wasted word. The oddness of the outside world – a civil war in Hawaii, a renegade telecommunications employee who hijacks the airwaves to cause unrest – sneaks in around the edges. The characters in this play frequently express themselves in clipped, unfinished phrases, but the emotion and humor bubble up from underneath each syllable. All the members of this family have shut parts of themselves down in order to cope with the world, in order to inoculate themselves against the pain of loss. But their desire to connect, to learn more about each other, often in spite of their better instincts, keeps driving them forward. The home they return to is not the home they left, but the possibilities of their new lives are worth the upheaval.
KYLE - I won’t be able to see you after this. The shame and all.
MARIA - I once held your head up so you didn’t swallow your own vomit.
KYLE - Our first date?
MARIA - We weren’t dating yet.
KYLE - If I were somebody else, I would have said maybe throw that one back.
MARIA - You were kind. And you were handsome.
KYLE - I wish you didn’t have to say all that in the past tense.
the limitation of sight by Matt Weerts.
A young man at the end of his rope calls up an ex-lover who drives across two states to the rescue.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day (in my utopian season), a romantic double-feature by Matt Weerts, including the limitation of sight and Grass and Concrete, elevates the language of everyday conversation into something close to poetry. The imperfect initial productions of these plays both made the same basic mistake. They were content to skate along the pretty surface of the words, without digging into the guts underneath. The writer reveals the characters to each other and the audience through the great lost art of conversation. The language is gorgeous, but the function of those words is to help keep people alive. The stakes are high, and the only way to survive is to grab each other and hold on tight - even if at the same time we’re letting go.
DORIS - Children, quiet! Or I'll hit you over the head with something cheap.
Love’s Lines, Angles & Rhymes by Todd Hughes. A man’s 20th century present intertwines with both his teenage past and the fates of the members of a 16th century acting troupe led by a playwright named Bill Shakespeare.
Revisiting this script, I’m struck by how prescient it is. While the country is locked in a struggle over the definition of marriage, this play, which I first saw almost ten years ago, deals not just with the limitations society tries to put on the human heart, but the limitations we impose on ourselves. Colorful characters, bawdy humor, endearing couples, and multiple weddings – both straight and gay – across time buoy up fearful characters so they can have a chance at happiness. Promises not kept in the past spur new pledges for a more hopeful future. All this, plus the naturalistic dialogue hides another secret — It’s all written in iambic pentameter.
SHAKESPEARE - Yes, Kit, he's handsome. He's very handsome when his face is not twisted in insanity.
Bards by Nick Ryan.
Christopher Marlowe, spy for the Queen, enlists William Shakespeare on his most dangerous mission yet.
CONRAD - Lisa... your dad’s a wolf. He swallows men whole everyday.
Also, Shift by Nick Ryan.
A fundamentalist second-grader, an abandoned husband, a cyber-terrorist, and a frustrated teacher have nothing, and everything, in common.
LUCIFER - I hate luncheons with the Minister of Gluttony. It's always a goddamn contest with that bastard.
And, Deviled Eggs by Nick Ryan.
The End of Days is overdue, because the Devil can’t seem to rise to the occasion and conceive the Anti-Christ. Meanwhile, the condemned souls in hell stage a revolt.
I would finish off my season with three plays in rep by Nick Ryan, who may currently be the most visible of the playwrights I've mentioned due to his success at the Fringe Festival with his company Four Humors. Still, his works deserve still wider exposure. Smart comedy is in short supply on the modern stage, and Ryan writes reams of it at an intimidating, prolific pace. Like Shakespeare, Nick writes for high brow and low at the same time.
The rollicking adventure story Bards is based on solid research of Elizabethan poets and playwrights. Theology and mythology collide in bawdy hilarity in Deviled Eggs. The promise and horrors of modern technology and the decline of modern education are interwoven with the mysteries of the human heart in Shift. It’s comedy that’s so much fun, you don’t realize your brain is also working overtime. It’s a way to laugh your butt off and not feel guilty afterward.
Time with a Nick Ryan play is never time wasted.
Someone also took a chance on Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, and all the other recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The classics of tomorrow are being written today – otherwise theater doesn’t have a future, just a past. Theaters have to bring new plays to audiences – especially if they hope to find new audiences.❦