Because the Playwrights’ Center revolves around a black box space, anything can happen. At Taste of the Season, PWC’s season preview event on September 24 and 26, the audience traveled to a bar in 1967 Oakland, CA, and to the couch of a comfortable home in Saint Paul. They witnessed a mother arguing with the ghost of her dead daughter and plunged into winter--all too familiar--in Russia with a musical rendition of Gogol’s Overcoat.
Taking the audience to all of these locales were the playwrights themselves. On hand were Alice Tuan, Tori Sampson, Benjamin Benne, and Kira Obolensky for this season preview event. They each spoke with artistic director Jeremy Cohen about their work and what they hope to achieve in the year ahead. Alice Tuan’s Humbling in Saint Paul will run as a part of PlayLabs in October. “My friend wrote an amazingly funny play about her almost dying,” Cohen told the audience. Tuan did indeed almost die in Saint Paul while workshopping a play at PWC in 2016 when she contracted a strange illness. The play is an autobiographical take on that time, with Alice Tuan transformed into Olive Chung and, in the reading Tuan provided, explaining her writing life: “Part of the job is to live with uncertainty.” Talk about foreshadowing. Tuan also had warm words for PWC: “You give the playwright whatever they need.”
This was a thread throughout the evening with playwrights and board members alike highlighting the importance of supporting playwrights. Playwright Kira Obolensky said we’ve too often turned to old stories to illuminate our present condition, “but now is the time for new stories.” This sentiment was echoed in Jerome Fellow Tori Sampson’s description of her work. Growing up as the daughter of a history professor, Sampson “learned the reality of the world through history,” and while some of her plays are set in the past, they speak to modern times. Her reading was from such a play. Set in 1967, the folks populating a black bar in Oakland debate the methods of the Civil Rights Movement, an older man telling a younger, “You kids have it easy. We didn’t have the time” for marching and sitting at lunch counters and riding buses. Sampson’s lively dialogue and drilling down into issues that are still sadly relevant today promise to make a deep and affecting piece for theatre. In speaking with Cohen, she outlined her goals for the year, among which was getting over the exhaustion of grad school and finishing up work she wrote during that time.
McKnight Fellow Benjamin Benne had similar goals when he was a PWC Many Voice Fellow last year, re-writing about five of his plays. As a McKnight Fellow this year, he looked forward to working on something brand new. When Cohen asked about his development process, he described the image boards he creates for each work, tacking up images and words that inform and shape a play. He knows the work has legs when he starts hearing character voices, something Sampson had also mentioned. His reading was strong on voice. A middle-aged mother talks with the ghost of her daughter, alternately five years old and 15. They debate the nature of love and sex, coming to the conclusion that there is no difference between pain and pleasure in heaven.
The aforementioned musical Overcoat may have caused some readers to raise their eyebrows in delight or confusion. That seems par for the course for Obolensky’s work, which PWC board member and playwright Carlyle Brown called “so theatrical.” Meaning it’s work that could really only happen onstage. And with Winter singing one of the two excerpted numbers, he’s right. That intentionally droning, one-note-only number evoked the monotony of winter to such an extent that the man next to me quipped it was time to get out of town before the cold really sets in. Obolensky described the world of Gogol’s Overcoat as Kafka meets The Office, and while that tone was present in the other number of the evening (a boss tells clerk Charlie Shoe she doesn’t care at all about his family or his problems), Obolensky’s goal is deeper than portraying surreal bureaucracy. With this work, she hopes to excavate the divide between rich and poor and the role of empathy. The Overcoat: a musical for non musical people will run as a part of the Ruth Easton Play Series, going up--appropriately--in December.
The added fun of Taste of the Season are the wine pairings that appear like clockwork after each reading. Associate Artistic Director Haylen Finn works with sponsors Zipp’s Liquors and Total Wine & More to select one wine to accompany each playwright. She then “dramaturgs the wine,” as Cohen put it. These pairings go quite in depth, involving tasting notes and background on the winery and individuals who make it. Tuan had a California Chenin Blanc, Sampson a buttery red blend called Horseshoes & Handgrenades made by Andre Mack, Benne a South African red blend called Wolf Trap with notes of berries and spice, and Obolensky an ice wine from Wagner in the Finger Lakes.
While the evening is focused on the playwrights and their work, the event’s other purpose is to raise money to support those very playwrights, PWC’s 2,000 members, and the resources and services all of those creative folks need. Managing director Robert Chelimsky and board member Mary Gearen described the work of PWC and $315,000 given annually to playwrights. Setting a goal of $25,000 for the two evenings of the event, several audience members took care of 20% of that goal in the first portion of the fundraising, volunteering to be New Play Amplifiers at the $1,000. It’s very public fundraising, but if that makes you squeamish, don’t worry: it’s quick, there’s no pressure, and there’s more wine in the lobby.
Mostly, you feel excited that so many people turned out in support of playwrights. At the top of the evening, Cohen asked how many people in the audience were at the Playwrights’ Center for the first time. A full two rows--about 30 to 40 people--raised their hands. During the reception, Obolensky--who, by the way, has participated in every aspect of PWC, including serving on their board--said, “I support the Playwrights’ Center, and I need it. It’s the place I go to do work.” With 42 Fellows and Core Writers every year and 2,000 members around the world, she isn’t alone. Pick up a season booklet or head to the Playwrights’ Center’s website or Facebook page. Go to some readings (they’re free!). Get inside the development of new work. Sit in the Playwrights’ Center’s black box and travel places you never expected to go.