Dig the New Breed

Prologue

Lights rise on a large, windowless office. Piles of scripts and file folders overflow onto tables, sofa, and floor. Grey Gardens poster, Post-it notes, and a four-month planner decorate the walls. In an Aeron chair, Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford reclines. Dressed for the summer heat in ripped khaki shorts and plaid shirt, he scoots his chair back and forth.

"I'm so happy that someone's happy about our season," says Sanford. "No one's called and said, 'This is so exciting.'" That reluctance is somewhat understandable. In programming the 2007–2008 calendar, Sanford has taken a considerable risk. In its 35 years, Playwrights Horizons has developed last- ing affiliations with many of the theater's luminaries—Christopher Durang, Richard Nelson, A.R. Gurney, James Lapine, William Finn, etc. Nearly every season, these names grace the Playwrights Horizons 42nd Street marquee. Nearly every season, that is, except this one. For the first time in decades, Playwrights Horizons has devoted its entire schedule to early-career writers, with a particular emphasis on female dramatists.

Names such as Sarah Treem or Jordan Harrison may not ring bells with the subscriber base, but they're very familiar to Sanford and his literary department. Sanford has had an ongoing association with every playwright he has produced. Even in the case of these younger writers, their relationships with Playwrights Horizons stretch back two to 10 years, progressing from unsolicited manuscripts to solicited ones, from readings to commissions, and now finally culminating in full productions.

Sanford did not set out to program an entire season of emerging writers. Certainly, he has included one or two newer writers every season, and insists, "We're a writer's theater—young writers need a place where they're respected." But the 2007–2008 schedule came about almost by accident. Some commissioned work didn't arrive, and some that did weren't as good as Sanford had hoped. "I'm not going to pick someone with a name if I think the play's really problematic," he says. "I don't think you're doing a favor to a writer." He gradually realized that the best work available all came from writers the theater had never before produced. "Our marketing department was really nervous," Sanford admits. But he wasn't. "As it came together, I got more excited by it," he says. "Now we're going to show the world that there's this new generation: Get excited." To aid that excitement, allow us to provide brief introductions to the season's first four playwrights: Kate Fodor, Sarah Treem, Jordan Harrison, and Sarah Ruhl.

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Kate Fodor
Fiona Aboud
Act I

A diner on West 42nd Street near Playwrights Horizons. Bright lights, booths, Top 40 radio. Kate Fodor, 37, arrives. She's recently moved to a smallish town in Pennsylvania, but still appears consummately New York—black-clad and self-possessed even in the swelter. Of all the playwrights in the season, Fodor is newest to the craft. 100 Saints You Should Know is only her second play. "I have a husband and a baby and a house and a mortgage," says Fodor, "and now I've decided I want to be a starving artist."

Though she acted in high school and took some creative-writing courses at Oberlin, Fodor "went off and got a corporate job" at Reuters. Then, several years ago, she found herself at lunch with theater friends. "We all started talking about the story of Hannah Arendt's relationship with Martin Heidegger and what an interesting play it would make," says Fodor. "I was going home on the subway and I got to thinking I could write that play. At that point I still definitely had a very full professional life, but I started writing this play on the side, just for fun. Every now and then I'd pick it up, then think: 'Oh, this is silly.' Then I'd put it away for three months, and then I'd pick it up again." The result, Hannah and Martin, earned a 2004 Off-Broadway production at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, strong reviews, and a starring turn by David Strathairn—not bad for a first attempt.

Placing her next work at Playwrights Horizons is none too shabby, either. 100 Saints concerns a priest asked to take a sabbatical from the Catholic Church who then retreats to his mother's house. Though classical in structure, the play avoids the confrontations or histrionics that such material might encourage. "Obviously, I was attracted by the [idea that] the priesthood is in crisis . . . so it was the news stories that pulled me in. But then I was interested in doing exactly the opposite of the news story. What would it honestly be like to be part of this? Probably most of your life does not consist of dramatic conversations. . . . Most of your life is just spent trying to get through a Scrabble game with your mother or cleaning out the attic."

Act II

A café in Park Slope, Brooklyn. High ceilings and cocoa-colored walls. Sarah Treem, 27, stirs a cup of tea. She wears shorts, sandals, and a pink tank top just on the polite side of skimpy. Unlike Fodor, Treem came to playwriting early. Very early. "In seventh grade," recalls Treem, "I wrote a play called Who Am I Going to Sit With at Lunch? Thirteen characters, the whole thing in rhyming couplets, and it had this perfect Aristotelian structure. My English teacher sent it to a young playwrights contest, and it won. I thought, 'This is easy, I'll just do this.' Of course, it's never been as easy again."

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