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October 25 , 2004
TE founds Sister City project to develop new playwrights
BY Michael Terrazas & deb hammacher
Though Theater Emory’s (TE) Oct. 18 reception in the Schwartz Center theater lab was billed as “An Evening with David Kranes,” the event was a celebration of more than just the former artistic director of the Sundance Playwrights Lab who has been a frequent collaborator with TE over the past decade.
Aside from formally announcing the birth of the Sister City Playwrights exchange, a national effort to foster young playwrights in seven cities from coast to coast, those gathered in the theater lab also were asked to raise a symbolic glass to the space itself, which is physical evidence of the thinking behind the founding of Sister City.
In welcoming an audience of perhaps 75 artists, faculty, alumni, friends and other theater patrons, TE Artistic Producing Director Vinnie Murphy shared some background behind the lab’s creation. During discussions about Emory’s planned performing arts center in the mid-1990s, Murphy said, TE and the Department of Theater Studies volunteered to give up their wish for a fully functional theater space so that the center could contain a concert hall. What the theater folks got instead was the black-box theater lab—perfect for the development of new plays, something with which TE has been intimately involved since before Murphy’s arrival.
Through his work with Sundance, Kranes built a reputation for finding innovative ways to develop new work, and in his remarks he gave eight “bullet points” he’s learned about nurturing plays through their often lengthy gestational period.
“The playwright is more important than the play,” Kranes said. “You have to think in terms of lifetimes more than opening nights.”
Kranes also stressed the need to operate under a “laboratory paradigm” rather than one more attuned to production; developing a play is analogous, he said, to work done in more traditional laboratories, which seldom face the same deadline pressures as a company rehearsing for an upcoming production. “No real laboratory would ever think about developing a cure for a particular disease by April 7 at 10 p.m.,” Kranes said.
Following Kranes’ remarks, the event featured a panel discussion on “What Helps Most in Play Development?” by representatives from the nine participating theater companies in Sister City.
“The idea behind Sister City Playwrights is to help catapult regional artists to the national level,” Murphy said. “There are regional playwrights who are locked into a region and never get out; the goal is to have a national network to help these artists make that leap.”
The network (established in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco and Seattle) will work to coordinate residencies, co-commission new work, and help funders, critics and the public better understand and support the process of creating new theater work. Theater Emory will guide and fund the program during the next two years.
The project also will advocate for a co-sponsored series of “barebones” productions, minimally produced readings of worthy new plays done outside the critical and commercial realm, so playwrights have the opportunity to see a new work in draft form. TE has done this for years through its biennial Brave New Works series, and the company’s 2004–05 season is focusing exclusively on development of new plays.
The model for Sister City, Murphy said, was the Naomi Wallace Festival produced by TE and 12 Atlanta theaters in September 2001. Six full productions and six staged readings of Wallace’s plays were produced across the city, including world premieres of pieces that portrayed the world from an Arab’s point of view days after 9/11.
The critical mass of companies coming together to share and celebrate a Southern writer never before produced in Atlanta allowed the public, critics, media and arts community to view a body of work together. Wallace resuscitated two of her earlier (and abandoned) works and got help from the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in developing The Inland Sea before its London premiere. She also appeared on the cover of American Theater magazine.
Finally, the Oct. 18 event celebrated the publication of three new scripts commissioned by TE: American Wake, by theater studies Associate Professor Tim McDonough; Dating & Mating in Modern Times, by Elizabeth Wong; and Leap, by Emory alumna Lauren Gunderson, ’03C.TE has produced all three plays.