Writers' Bloc

A fearless new generation of Off-Broadway playwrights establishes downtown beachheads


ITEM:The Flea Theater, under Jim Simpson and Carol Ostrow, pursues both mainstream work (A.R. Gurney's hit play Mrs. Farnsworth) and a daring new play festival (with work by Kate Ryan, Gary Winter, Sheila Callaghan, Kevin Oakes, Charlotte Meehan, and Will Eno). Similarly, Daniel Aukin's Soho Rep has an impressive Writer/Director lab, which has developed work by many of these writers; Soho Rep has also given strong productions to Melissa James Gibson's [sic] and Suitcase, and Young Jean Lee's The Appeal.


Triskaidekaphilia: 13P assembles for its big close-up.
photo: Robin Holland
Triskaidekaphilia: 13P assembles for its big close-up.

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    ITEM:Over the last few years the Little Theater at Tonic, started by Judy Elkan and Kristen Kosmas, and currently run by Jeffrey M. Jones and Kate Ryan, has featured a monthly series of works in progress.


    What is striking about all this activity, even rendered in a cursory and incomplete fashion, is how much overlap there is between groups, whether it's workshops (as in Pataphysics) or productions (as in 13P and Clubbed Thumb). Even a collective like the Civilians, which was created by some extraordinarily talented actors (like Jenny Morris and Colleen Werthman) and equally talented directors (Steve Cosson and Anne Kauffman), provides new venues for this fresh writing. Cross-fertilization is everywhere. Indeed, the complex layering of association, what Edward Said calls "affiliation," is typical of the current scene—if scene it can be properly called. Rather, there seems to be a dozen or so scenes, related but not replicates, permeable and fluid for the most part. Individuals move in and about this loose cosmology as interest, talent, energy, and artistic impulse dictate. This type of theater community doesn't seem likely to morph into a Performance Group, Open Theater, or Wooster Group. The real estate situation—and the weird financial paradox of a super-rich New York with a young theater movement whose poverty seems to be its sole inheritance—have made such fixed structures virtually impossible. Curiously, the writing programs in the area have replaced bohemia as places where the young and adventurous can mix and share ideas for a truer, more vital theater.

    What impresses this observer is that these groups seem on the verge of making a truly creative community in which the right kind of competitiveness and conversation stimulate individuals to reach deeper into themselves, work harder, and go further. My generation of theater writers, by contrast, despite some attempts by a Happy Few, has remained pretty much a collection of suspicious, envious isolatoes—unwilling even to contemplate, much less formulate, common goals that involve any aesthetic discussion beyond the purely professional. Thus we remain at odds, loners and careerists of varying talent and success, and of an unclear profile, artistically speaking. The generation now hitting its stride may be able to do more. We will all be better off if it is able to pull it off. The riggery will perhaps always be there, but the sham will be far more obvious if there is some kind of real alternative, several miles downtown of the land of the yellow playbill.


    Mac Wellman was the recipient of the 2003 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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