Dig the New Breed
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 20072008 calendar, Sanford has taken a considerable risk. In its 35 years, Playwrights Horizons has developed last- ing affiliations with many of the theater's luminariesChristopher 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 theateryoung writers need a place where they're respected." But the 20072008 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.
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 Yorkblack-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 Strathairnnot 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."
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."
After her middle-school triumph, Treem received a B.A., an M.F.A., and a postgraduate fellowship, all from Yale. A Feminine Ending, which centers on a young female composer, will mark her first New York production. Upon learning that Sanford had scheduled A Feminine Ending alongside the season's other offerings, Treem says she felt "really, really lucky. If someone had asked me who my favorite writers are, they're in the season. I think Jordan Harrison's incredible, Sarah Ruhl absolutely. Rinne Groff, Adam Bock. I'm not quite sure what I did to deserve this."
What she did was to craft a forthrightly feminist play, which explores the challenges facing young women. Treem says that once out of drama school, she realized that "women and men weren't being given the same opportunities, and they weren't being looked at in the same way. But there was no way to talk about it. Bringing it up was somehow to victimize myself or be perceived as whiny. . . . So that's why I started writing the play, because I was looking for a way to talk about it." You certainly couldn't call the play whiny, nor does it offer simple prescriptions. In fact, Treem scrapped an earlier, more simplistic ending and went for one "much more ambiguous and much scarier and much more honest."
A used bookstore-cum-café in Soho. Dust, bricks, scones, shelf after shelf of art books and paperbacks. Jordan Harrison, 30, wearing a gray T-shirt adorned with a cartoon of a motorcycle, perches on a window. Voluble from caffeine, he details his relationship with Playwrights Horizons, a long one, which dates back to his fresh-from-Stanford internship in their literary department. He read hundreds of scripts and credits that experience with beginning his theater education. He also recalls "buying the wrong kind of bagels for the cast of the first reading I worked on. I got all plain bagelsbeing new to New York, the idea of a garlic bagel in the morning was oddand my boss wasn't pleased. She said, 'This is going to be your legacy!' So, I'm glad to have another legacy there now."
Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine is no plain bagel. Rather, it's a formally virtuosic work, which skips from the 1860s of Wagner to the 1960s of girl groups to the present day, intertwining the lives of various characters. "The two kinds of music I loved the most as a teenager were early-'60s girl groups and opera" says Harrison. "I had a behind-closed-doors/I-wouldn't-buy-it-in-a-record-store embarrassed love." In Harrison's romance, music functions as "both the sickness and the cure"like love, it proves both destructive and redemptive.
Harrison feels especially pleased to share a season with some of the same playwrights whose work he read and loved as an intern. "They're not just my peers," he says. "They're people whoI'm trying to avoid sounding cheesypeople who give me hope about calling myself a writer. A whole season of relatively new voices suggests that people are starting to think about what we do as not necessarily eccentric or quirky, but a legitimate way of looking at the world."
A Belgian restaurant on the East Side. Gleaming floors and Tin Tin posters. Sarah Ruhl, 33, enters in a summery blouse. She places an order for lemonade and French fries, which she amiably offers to share. Easily the best-known playwright on the season's roster, Ruhl's work has earned highly polarized responses from New York critics. Recent productions of The Clean House and Eurydice have received notices ranging from the ecstatic to the vitriolic, though they've generally delighted audiences.
Her plays demand a great emotional involvement on the part of the viewer. Ruhl says that "when I go to the theater, I want the heart and the mind to be fully engaged. Sometimes I feel like there's a shellac over contemporary American theater where I feel at an arm's distance from it. The actors don't feel entirely open or present, and I don't feel aware I'm in a room with other peopleand that's not what I'm aiming for." Dead Man's Cellphone stages that desire for connectedness. It follows a lonely young woman who pockets the cell phone of a deceased café-mate and attempts to forge ties with his family. It also includes a positively Dalí-esque "cell-phone ballet." Ruhl says she began the play out of a sense of "not feeling at home in this particular time period and feeling like emotionally, psychologically, culturally we haven't caught up to this amazing, strange technological universe we're in. I had this sense that people were less presentthey were always engaged in the culture of the instant."
While Ruhl describes the upcoming season as "wonderful," she wouldn't like to see Playwrights Horizons commit itself to new writers entirely. Indeed, she finds it problematic that in contemporary theater, "there's a half-life of a playwright, you reach a certain age and you're done. . . . That disturbs me as much as the thought that there's an old-boys network. Because I want to evolve."
Ruhl likely echoes every writer in the season when she delights in being a newer writer at Playwrights Horizons, but hopes to become an older writer there, too. She may well have the opportunity. Next year the theater will likely return to a more familiar formata season featuring four or five veteran writers and one or two debut ones. After all, Playwrights Horizons has distinguished itself by forging ongoing bonds with dramatists, and Sanford has no desire to alter that: "The writers you have a relationship with, we've always prided ourselves on being a home for them." And he intends to offer that hospitality to the writers in the current season. "Five years from now, you're going to stop calling them emerging writers," he says. "And I'm not going to turn my back on them."
Lights down. Applause.
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