We are so excited to announce the addition of four fantastic people to the Umbrella Project family. They each bring unique experiences and expertise to our organization, and we're so happy they've decided to help us further the lives of new plays in Seattle and beyond.
Umbrella Project is committed to the organizations in our network here in Seattle and around the country, to our playwrights, and to the projects we’re engaged with. We remain committed to furthering the life of new plays in Seattle, interconnecting our community here and connecting new plays in Seattle to the national conversation. New to our vision for Umbrella Project is to be more overt in our championing of marginalized voices in decision making, programming, and creative endeavors. In the coming year, we hope to take on even more.
In response to this evolving vision and our desire to be even more active, we’re growing our team.
We’re seeking a Director of Operations, Director of Marketing & Communications, Director of Development, Associate Dramaturgs and Associate Producers.
Learn more about some of these roles below. Other job descriptions will be posted shortly. At this time, these are volunteer positions, though we hope to offer competitive stipends in the coming year. Contact Gavin Reub with questions.
Reports to: Director of Dramaturgy
The Associate Dramaturg works with the Director of Dramaturgy and other Umbrella Project dramaturgs to evaluate incoming scripts, communicate with playwrights, and develop new plays. The Dramaturgical Associate may also contribute to the administrative side of Umbrella Project, leading talkbacks, writing blog posts, and organizing the script reader pool.
Reports to: Director of Engagement & Umbrella Project Founders
The Associate Producer works with Umbrella Project to further their presence within the theatrical+ community of Seattle, and to move projects and practices forward. The Producing Associate may also contribute to the administrative side of Umbrella Project, attending meetings and keeping minutes, constructing organizational tools and maintaining project management, as well as acting as an advocate on behalf of Umbrella Project in different capacities.
Director of Operations
Reports to: Umbrella Project Founders
The Director of Operations works with Umbrella Project to maintain, create, and oversee day to day administration and structure of the company. This includes managing Director of Marketing, Director of Development, and any producing bodies. The Director of Operations will work with other members of Umbrella Project executive staff to craft the future of the organization, and establish a needed artistic resource and hub for the Northwest and beyond.
Director of Marketing & Communications
Reports to: Umbrella Project Founders
Umbrella Project is seeking a Director of Marketing & Communication to be responsible for the planning, development and implementation of all of Umbrella Project’s marketing strategies, marketing communications, and public relations activities, both external and internal. The Director of Marketing & Communications supports UP's mission and objectives, ensuring consistency in voice. The right person for this role is a highly motivated individual with experience and a passion for marketing and communications, including social media and creating content. In the future, this role may manage associates.
Director of Development
Reports to: Umbrella Project Founders & Director of Operations
The Director of Development works with Umbrella Project in seeking grant and funding opportunities as a fiscally sponsored 501c3 organization. This may include seeking group and individual opportunities, project-to-project opportunities, and developing donation campaigns. The Director of Development will assist Umbrella Project in curating its worth and placement in Seattle and Nationally to promote itself as a grant-winning organization, providing its projects and programs with sustainability.
Making Seattle a destination for new work is not just about supporting the ecosystem of our local community but working to build a bridge from Seattle to the national conversation and back. This year, we took two big trips to take the first steps towards building that bridge.
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville In April, Umbrella Project went down to Louisville to attend one of the largest, longest running, and arguably most influential new play festivals in America. Executive Director, Norah Elges and Managing Director, Erin Bednarz flew in from Seattle to take in 7 new plays in 3 days; our favorite kind of marathon.
It was important for Umbrella Project to attend Humana this year. Not just because we love playwrights, new plays, and seeing our friends and colleagues from all over the country, but because a large piece of what we we’re building to support our mission of moving new plays forward, is a stronger connection from Seattle to the national conversation. Very few other artists from Seattle were at Humana this year- the exceptions being Kristin Leahey (Seattle Repertory Theatre, literary director) and Caitlin Sullivan (the Satori Group, artistic director). By attending Humana, we’re able to bring the experience of these plays back to not one single theatre company, but to the 20+ companies that make up our Local Network.
Between World-Premiere performances, happy hours, press junkets, and catching up with friends new and old, we felt honored to be representing Seattle amongst the National theatre congregation — here are just a few of the inspiring words said about our city & the future of Humana:
Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) hosts its annual conference in a different city each year. This year, we lucked out that the conference was held in July just a short drive away in Portland, OR. The conference brings together dramaturgs and literary managers from all over the country + Canada for four days of panels, hot topics, discussions, coffee breaks, happy hours, and important time and space to catch up with old colleagues and make new connections. Umbrella Project would not exist without LMDA as this idea grew out discussions at the 2014 conference in Boston. Being there not only as attendees but as panel hosts and speakers, happy hour conveners, and even getting a shout out from Mark Bly himself, was exhilarating.
Over our four days at the conference, we shared a hot topic on "Applying Start-Up Methodology to New Play Development," hosted a cocktail party for our LMDA colleagues at Swank and Swine, and curated & spoke on a panel on "Making Local, Thinking National" with ARTBARN, groundswell ATX, One Coast Collaboration and Washington Ensemble Theater
We are ever grateful to the support of LMDA, our mentors and colleagues, and the generosity of dramaturgs everywhere. To learn more about the conference, check out #LMDA16 on Twitter. You can also watch some of the panels on HowlRound.com. Keeping it on the west coast for one more year, #LMDA17 will be in Berkeley, CA.
We look forward to sharing the full interviews from Humana with you over the coming weeks. We are still growing and learning. We still have lots to do. And we still need your help. Your donation today means we can start planning our travel to Humana, LMDA, and more for 2017. It’s tax deductible.
Humana Interviews: Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner and Jill Rafson, Director of New Work at Roundabout Theatre Company
Jenny Rachel Weiner is the 2016 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at the Roundabout Theatre in NYC where her play Kingdom Come will receive its world premiere this fall. Her play, Horse Girls, received it’s west coast premiere at Seattle’s Annex Theatre in 2014.
Jill Rafson is the Director of New Work at Roundabout Theatre Company and has been a major champion of new plays; especially Jenny’s. Jenny and Jill first met by introduction from Josh Harmon (Bad Jews), and after attending Jenny’s thesis production of Nina at Fordham University (MFA 2014), Jill got to read an early draft of Kingdom Come...the rest just fell together.
We got together for a hotel room chat to rehash their meet-cute, the importance of institutions supporting emerging playwrights, and that a good theatre buddy + bourbon is the best way to survive Humana.
NE: It’s so wonderful that you identified this opportunity for emerging playwrights. I know so often that less really happens --or agents won’t sign you -- until you’ve had that first production. How do you find the scripts for playwrights who don’t have agents?
JR: Some of them are how Jenny came to me -- through an artist recommendation. We also support emerging directors so we’re constantly talking to directors and we ask them what playwrights they are interested in. I also make an effort to try to cover as many of the MFA programs as possible. I’m looking for good plays so if you can get me a good play, I don’t care how I got it.
NE: Can you share a bit about Kingdom Come and what it was about the play that made it that needle in the haystack? What is the play about?
JW: The play is about two women who catfish each other on the internet and fall in love. It’s my musing on modern day loneliness and the way we hide and project the people we want to be. How that intersects with our dreams and insecurities; what’s real connection and what’s masked connection.
JR: For me, I tend to get plays in phases. I’d been getting a lot of scripts touching on this internet thing and if are we more connected or less connected. Often, when I’m reading a lot on the same theme, I’ll finally read one that cracks it in a new way like, “Oh! somebody here has actually figured out how to get to the actual human piece of this.” And it was funny. There’s a lot of serious or self-serious work out there and I really strive to find things that actually have some comedy in them and are willing to let the humor come out. One thing I’ve always loved about Jenny is that she’s a woman who is hilarious. Hilarious women really are unicorns. I’m often asked, “What is the aesthetic of Roundabout Underground?” We air on the side of sincerity. Heart on the sleeve, narrative driven work. That’s just what we tend to like, and that’s what Jenny’s work is.
JW: I’m figuring out how to write through my perspective. Which is dark, funny, and with heart. It’s an interesting intersection. I’m a person who has real sincerity and real emotional depth in my own self, and also total sarcasm and jaded sense of the world. So it’s this funny, weird thing that I’m writing about which is people who really give a shit and are trying really hard to not give a shit. And that’s where the humor comes from. We’re all trying our best and we care about the way our lives unfold. And I think I’ve found my home with Roundabout because of how my voice has developed.
A sincere way of life with a dark comedy on top of it in a clear narrative way. It’s not often theaters are truly looking for comedy. It’s rare actually that theaters are programing comedy.
Heavy drama is like looking at the sun. I want to deal with the same emotions and themes as a serious drama. I’m masking it as something else. You can’t look at the sun.
JR: And my metaphor is ‘Eat your Vegetables’ theatre. You know when you’re watching a play that you should be watching but you don’t want to be watching it. Jenny hides the veggies in the mac’n’cheese.
JW: It’s so true! Life is so hard already. I need to feel comfortable to settle into the seat. I want to care about the people I’m seeing and I want to identify with them. And the way to identify with them is to see myself in them and the way to do that is with humor. It’s a reflection and a mirror. It’s us laughing at humanity and how hard it is to be a human.
JR: You may not be a 600lb woman, but everyone has felt insecure. That is the thing that you find universally throughout the characters in Kingdom Come. That’s what makes them so appealing. That may as well be because we’re all feeling the same thing on the inside.
JW: Even if you’re not online dating, it’s like the way we project our personas on Facebook. We might not say we’re a different person, but we are projecting what we want people to see every moment. It’s how I want you to see my life. It’s a cultivated and curated image.
Jenny Weiner: Jill, you were actually the first person to read the very early second draft of Kingdom Come and you actually didn’t even tell me it was for the reading series--I thought you were just reading my plays to keep our relationship going and I still hadn’t put two and two together. I just assumed that it didn’t apply to me, which is also why this all feels like I won the lottery.
Jill Rafson: I called Jenny and for the second time, tricked her into getting on the phone, not knowing what we were talking about, and told her that we’d selected Kingdom Come for the Underground Reading series; it was literally the needle in the haystack I’d been desperately wanting. And then one week after the series, we called Jenny to tell her that we’d be producing it this season. I wish I did that everyday -- it’s the best part of my job.
Norah Elges: Is the purpose of the Underground Reading Series at Roundabout to find a play for the mainstage?
JR: Yes and no. It has a couple of purposes. We’ve mostly done one production per season, and there was one season where we’d gotten a grant and were able to do a full two show season. The next year, we were thinking that it was going to be really sad when we get to the spring and there’s nothing going on in the Underground. So I added the reading series as a way to keep the space alive and the program at the forefront of people’s minds. The first year we did it, Bad Jews was in it and we decided to produce it immediately after. We discovered after that it was a great programing tool, and it was also the first time we got any awards attention. I wanted to try to achieve that without having the extra money, so that’s how the series started. We’ll be reexamining it again as we’re switching to a full two show season moving forward.
Erin Bednarz: Are the producing rules similar to Humana?
JR: Yes, it’s exactly the same. You can not have had a professional New York debut production yet. That’s another part of the series. I really try to at least find one or two writers for the series who aren’t represented and try to use that as an opportunity to help them get agents.
JW: Which is absolutely what happened for me. I signed with my agent a week after Jill called to tell me that Roundabout was putting Kingdom Come into the series. Initially, I didn’t think we’d get the Tow Foundation grant because Roundabout had received it the previous year. I felt so lucky that they believed in me (and the play) enough to put together this full application. I have so much gratitude and love for everyone at Roundabout; to feel so received by this company, and so lucky to be a part of it right now.
JR: The Tow Foundation came up with this grant to give emerging playwrights the ability to just be playwrights in the year that they are having their debut. You’re salaried through the theatre you are in residence with and each company breaks it down differently. Jenny has a salary, health insurance, can pay her rent and buy tickets & materials, do research and have a travel budget. That’s the premise of it; to live the life of an artist and to not have a day job while you’re trying to get a production on it’s feet. So you can go to every single preview and this can just be your job for the year. I love calling people to offer them their production. But my favorite call to get, is when playwrights call to tell me that they’ve quit their day job. And this grant just excellerates that whole process.
NE: It sounds like there is a real investment from Roundabout Underground in the longevity; not just of the play but also of the playwright?
JR: Part of the program is that you are automatically going to get commissioned by us for another play. We realized that part of this is telling a young playwright that they have a home under the arms of this big theatre. The whole point of the Underground’s creation was to have a safe space, and part of this safety is saying we don’t care how this sells, we don’t care what the critics say about it, we’re invested in you. Part of my job is to look for the voice of a playwright that we’ll want to work with in the long run; that’s where the commission came into it. And the hope is that we’ll produce the commission upstairs and say they’ve ‘graduated’. The track record has been really good so far and that’s the ideal; Josh Harmon, Steven Karam, Megan Kennedy, etc.
Roundabout was founded to do revivals. So what is the role that this theatre can play in new work? It should be going back to the original mission. It’s about refreshing the canon. Especially now when plays get revived so quickly. We’re getting plays from the ‘90s and the early ‘00s so we’re trying to keep an eye on what are the voices that will stick around in the long run. It’s self interest honestly, because I don’t want to do the same Arthur Miller play forever and he was — at one point — a contemporary playwright.
EB: And how great is it to see that reflected? To see Tow Foundation supporting and validating that?
JW: Their commitment to the playwright is evidenced in the carrier of these playwrights. Steven Karam was the first playwright in the Underground and has his first commission as a Pulitzer finalist and has two shows on Broadway this season, one that was a commission.
JR: We don’t frequently do new plays on Broadway. My new challenge is, How do I get them to stay in our family as they keep growing? Since Steven had already adapted the The Seagull for film, we are commissioning them to do adaptations of classics.
JW: Roundabout is making an investment in a young playwright, and the capacity to grow with the company is astronomical. They are the biggest company in New York and the support is immense and they aren’t just saying, “yeah we’re doing your play, goodbye.” Everyone at the company has said, “This is your artistic home.”
JR: Yes and that would have been true with or without the grant from the Tow Foundation. They are putting money behind the principles we’ve set.
JW: Every department at that theatre cares about the work. It is a huge company and I met with every department over 3 or 4 weeks. Not only did every single person know my play -- from interns to the Artistic Director and Executive Director saying, “We’re so lucky to have you here.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?! You are ridiculous. Thank YOU for having me.”
NE: Something Umbrella Project has been asking at Humana is about the track record. Part of our mission with UP is helping playwrights between these gaps -- staged reading to first production and first production to any next production. How has Roundabout really been able to set their Underground plays up for success?
JR: Visibility. We know we’re gonna get a NY Times review. I’ve also added that we publish the script so that it’s available for sale once performances begin. It’s on sale, in the lobby. Playwrights Horizon has started to do it. McCarter is doing it. That’s something I really like doing on a smaller scale. The press presence is certainly the big thing. Bad Jews and Speech and Debate are the poster children for this. Tigers Be Still gets done a lot.
NE: And all through have been produced in Seattle! Last question: Jenny, this is your first time at Humana and Jill’s third time. What have been your Humana survival tools?
JR: A good theatre going buddy to keep you honest. It’s delightful to have a buddy!
JW: Scheduled bathroom breaks and bourbon. They sort of go hand in hand.
Jenny Weiner’s play Kingdom Come premieres at Roundabout Underground. In September 2016, Jenny will begin enrollment at Juilliard as part of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.
As new play dramaturgs, playwrights are the center of our world. We founded Umbrella Project in order to be better advocates for playwrights in rehearsal rooms and in our artistic communities. We're working to build clearer pathways to other theatre communities for the great new plays that are developed in Seattle. We’ve had the good fortune of working with some incredible local and nationally recognized writers over this last year including; Emily Conbere, Benjamin Benne, Brendan Healy, Susan Stanton, and Arlitia Jones. When we bring a playwright under our umbrella, we are committing to support their play from an early stage to first production and beyond.
Since we are not a theatre company or a producing house, we are able to meet the playwright on their timeline, removing roadblocks and barriers as they arise, matchmaking new resources, and designing a custom path by which to move the play forward.
Like with many other new play development hubs, this starts with a workshop. As dramaturgically minded producers, we work with the playwright to bring together a room of people to take the play on the page to it’s next level. With no public showing following the workshop, unless requested by the playwright, they have the freedom to explore boldly.
We’ve just completed our second workshop of this year, Brendan Healy’s play TASTE, originally written while a part of the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Writers Group, which includes a live cooking competition. Having received a few staged readings (Seattle Repertory Theatre, Northwest Playwrights Alliance, and New Century Theatre Company), it was key for Brendan to explore elements that traditional readings don’t allow for; in this case, actors making hot dishes on stage.
How does an Umbrella Project move forward after a workshop? Though each process is unique, here is our model for the new few steps:
First Look. Once the playwright and dramaturg feel the play is ready , we invite members of our network and potential producers or co-producers, to hear a reading of the play. Benjaminin Benne’s at the very bottom of a body of water, which received its First Look in July, is seeking its first production. Want to learn more? Email Erin for the inside scoop.
Premiere. Moving Emily Conbere’s Knocking Bird forward from it’s 2 year staged reading limbo, was a large part of what inspired Umbrella Project. After receiving it’s co-production at West of Lenin last fall, Knocking Bird is seeking its next production. Email Norah for the inside scoop.
Bridging Seattle to the National Conversation. For many new plays, the first production is also the last. “World Premiere” sounds so flashy and wonderful, but often it’s tough to find a second home for new work, even if it’s in a new community where it’s never been seen before. Umbrella Project works with our partners across the country to try to find a second stop for locally-grown scripts out into the great wide world. Advocating for opportunities for co-productions, rolling premieres with continued development, and trades.
Making Seattle a destination for new work is about sending plays out and bringing plays in. Partnerships with similarly minded organizations, like One Coast Collaboration (OCC), give us the opportunity to work with national playwrights and develop work in our community. In August, we partnered with OCC to bring Susan Stanton back to Seattle to workshop her play, Furball. Susan’s play The Things Are Against Us, premiered at Washington Ensemble Theatre earlier this year.
Our next workshop is at the end of this month. We’ll be heading down to Olympia for a weekend in the woods as we run our way through Arlitia Jones's play Come to Me, Leopards.
Making Seattle a destination for new work starts in Seattle. As Umbrella Project grows our national network and works to build a stronger bridge from Seattle to the national conversation, our first commitment is still to the vibrant, messy, ambitious, and bold community of our rainy city.
We began building our local network by seeking out theatre companies that champion new plays. While there are hundreds of productions of new plays per year in Puget Sound, only a few of those plays are seen by the general population (non-industry) and even fewer that are developed and premiered here go on to have second productions or any sort of life outside Seattle. Umbrella Project works with the companies in our network to help fill in the gaps between idea and staged reading, reading and workshop, workshop and premiere and beyond.
One year later, over 20 organizations that have stood up and made a commitment to new work including; 14/48 Projects, ACT- A Contemporary Theatre, Annex Theatre, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Forward Flux, Live Girls! Theater, Mirror Stage, Northwest Playwrights Alliance, Parley Productions, Pratidhwani, Rain City Projects, RED STAGE, Seattle Public Theater, Seattle Repertory Theatre, STAGEright Theatre, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, The Horse in Motion, The Pocket/The Slate, and The Satori Group.
The Forecast, our monthly-ish newsletter, and our New Play Calendar, highlight the new play related events happening across the 19+ local theatre companies that are part of our network. We also had a few people join us for a very small test of an early version of the New Play Pass—our first sketch at building a sustainable revenue stream and a channel to reach new audiences.
We are continuing to host the Seattle chapter of Dramaturgy Open Office Hours every month at locations around the city. The Dramaturgy Open Office Hours Project launched in the spring of 2014 in New York City with the intent to increase accessibility to dramaturgs, and to create a place where people could meet to discuss dramaturgy in a relaxed, informal way. With UP as a co-sponsor of DOOH, we continue to provide basic support to other freelance artists, to build networks of collaborators, and to increase awareness not only to the role of dramaturgs in the creative process, but also to the many dramaturgs living and working in their vicinity with whom they might choose to collaborate. We just had one last night, and it was great.
Script Consultancy is a program which offers our dramaturgical services to the larger community at a sliding scale. Playwrights will be paired with an Umbrella Project dramaturg for one-on-one sessions to discuss their script. Our dramaturgs aid playwrights in structure, character development, world-building, amongst many other aspects of accelerating a new play. All plays that come to Umbrella Project via Script Consultancy may be considered for future co-productions with the playwright's consent.
It's been a big year and we're already looking ahead to more! These are just some of the programs and projects we're continuously working on.
Knocking Bird trailer, produced in partnership with Mighty Tripod Productions.
This time last years, we jumped in with both feet. At the same time that we were running our Kickstarter campaign, we were already putting our plan into action with the world premiere of Emily Conbere’s play Knocking Bird. Conbere’s play, and it’s long and circuitous journey to production, was one of the reasons we wanted to start Umbrella Project in the first place, so it made sense that it was our first co-production. We are not a traditional theatre company but we are both a development pipeline filling in the gaps between readings and workshops, first productions and second productions, as well as a new play matchmaker. In this case, it was Splinter Group and West of Lenin that came to the table with us to bring this play to life—over two years after its latest staged reading.
Originally written as a ten-minute play for Live Girls Theater, Knocking Bird was expanded to a one-act in January 2013 for SOAP Fest (dir. Andy McGinn). Conbere continued to develop the play during her time as part of the Seattle Rep Writers Group and the full-length version received a staged reading presented by Northwest Playwrights Alliance in June of 2013 (dir. Paul Budraitis).
Paul Budraitis, who had continued to champion the play followed it’s reading with NPA, and Norah Elges, Umbrella Project’s co-founder and Executive Director, had been committed to see the play through to production.
Comments from 2015/16 Gregory Award Nominators.
While New Play is not one of the People’s Choice categories for the Gregory Awards, which honors excellence in the Puget Sound area, Knocking Bird is eligible for Outstanding Actor, Actress, Director, and Production.
We were fortunate to have an incredible team bringing this work to its next life stage. Under Paul’s direction, actors Angela DiMarco, Samuel Hagen, and Alex Matthews, gave life to these characters. Our unstoppable design and production team—Ahren Buhmann, Robert Henson, Leo Mayberry, Ashley Rolph, Hannah Schnabel, Tom Wiseley, and Norah Elges—worked tirelessly to build the world of the play inside of West of Lenin.
View the digital program for Knocking Bird here.
Knocking Bird ran September 11 through October 3, 2015 at West of Lenin.
One year ago we were in the midst of our Kickstarter campaign, a whirlwind crowdfunding effort to raise $20K in 30 short days.
We were pretty overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the all the normal stresses of crowdfunding, sure, but even more overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and generosity of our theatre community near and far. Within the first few weeks, we had received not only generous monetary donations, but all the encouraging words we needed to keep us hustling.
On September 18, 2015, we exceeded our goal with 251 backers. Now, a year a later, we’re still thriving because of those who pledged their money, advocacy, and advice to our new venture. Whether you were one of those initial backers or you’ve chimed it your encouragement since then, thank you.
Special shout out and thanks to the early Umbrella Project advocates who appeared in our campaign promotions: Paul Budraitis (director, Knocking Bird), Josh Beerman (playwright), Allison Gregory (playwright), Elizabeth Heffron (playwright), and Darragh Kennan (artistic director, New Century Theatre Company). Extra thanks to advisors Liz Engelman, Caitlin Sullivan, Bob Thordarson, and Gina Davito; playwrights Emily Conbere, Benjamin Benne, and Amy Wheeler. And, of course, we need to send a huge thank you to Angela DiMarco, Mighty Tripod Productions and Tony Tibbetts for the filming, editing, and production of our campaign video, an absolutely necessary part of any successful crowd funding effort.
This money has allowed us to take a number of major first steps. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking back at how this campaign—and your support—truly helped launch Umbrella Project into the world. It’s exciting to be able to share that the goals we set for ourselves for our first year are well under way.
Umbrella Project is on a mission to further the life of new plays made in Seattle. By inviting new audiences to experience original theatre and by strengthening the Seattle theatre community’s voice in the national conversation around new work, Umbrella Project will make Seattle a destination for new plays.
P.S. Moving plays forward is expensive! Though the crowdfunding campaign is over, we'd still appreciate gifts of any size. Visit our Support page to donate.
Humana Interviews: Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews triumphant playwright — and Seattle Cheerleader — Steven Dietz
Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews triumphant playwright -- and Seattle Cheerleader -- Steven Dietz
This is the first blog post from our Humana Interviews series. In April 2016, Umbrella Project went to the Humana Festival of new plays in Louisville, KY. There, we conducted interviews with some of the theatre artists that we admire about life at Humana and the state of new plays in the American theatre.
Steven Dietz's play This Random World premiered at 2016 Humana Festival. Dietz’s play Bloomsday, which received a Steinberg Award citation, premiered at Seattle’s ACT Theatre in 2015. Dietz's play On Clover Road opens at Seattle Public Theatre on September 22.
Norah Elges: When was the moment you knew that writing plays was what you wanted to do?
Steven Dietz: I was formerly a director so it was a long time before I started writing plays and there was some natural segue from one to the other. I’d been working on new plays as a director in Minneapolis and then I was probably workshopping and directing a new play once a week or once every 2 weeks for about 11 years. That was my sort of grad school. But the moment that the theatre captured me in a great way was falling in with the wrong crowd in high school. I had no theatre in my upbringing. My parents didn’t see a play until I wrote a play. But a good friend of mine’s mom ran the theatre program at Loretta Heights College in Denver which is a terrific program and I got dragged with these new theatre friends to the musical revue of songs from various popular musicals at the time. I didn’t know what an intermission was. We just took a break and then we came back and that was called an intermission. However, at the top of Act 2 there was this bare stage in a big proscenium house, and in the upright corner all of a sudden, a perfect shaft of light came up going from Up Right to Down Left, a perfect shaft of light, and then a women stepped into that shaft of light in a very simple, white, very ‘70s dress; she walked that line of light from Up Right to Down Left while she sang acapella Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and she got to the end and she finished that song and the lights faded out and I’ve never forgotten that. Music and tone and space and light and precision and I had no mechanism to translate that because I didn’t know how to be in the theatre -- but I see that and I think: I want to make that. I want to make things that make those feelings. When I lose faith (and I’m an optimist) that’s the first signpost I go back to. Don’t lose that. It’s easy to dine out on complaint. But whenever I hear that song I’m just right there.
NE: What about This Random World speaks to now?
SD: I can be in a gathering of all my favorite people and I can say, “How in the world did I meet these people?” And it is both a joyous thing because these people bring me joy, and it is a bittersweet thing because it feels like this odd random chance. And some of that is hard to describe; it’s sort of ineffable. What if I took those missed connections seriously? I mean even as I wrote the play (and I wrote this play very quickly, at the New Harmony Project in Indiana), I kept waiting for the moment where I’d take all these missed connections and make them collide. That’s what I’ve always done before, in 40 some other plays. The new thing that I did for me, and please I don’t mean a new thing that I brought to the American theatre, but a new thing for me was I just made them continue to miss. And in that somewhere is a recognition of how little I control. A character in the play says, “I wish I had doubted more”. And that’s me now having lost friends, having lost my parents, but having had this inordinately lucky life. There’s a seriousness of purpose in me now that I always thought was there, but now it’s deeper and maybe I’m starting to have language for it.
NE: What’s been the biggest surprise in seeing it on stage?
SD: The biggest surprise for me is that it is a premiere. I’ve had plays here at ATL before. This festival used to do plays that had been done once before. So this is my first experience launching a play here. It’s been fantastic but it is also a ‘hothouse’ atmosphere. Luckily I’m blessed with a fantastic director and a fantastic cast and designers. I’ve been surprised that I didn’t attempt to normalize the play. I work a lot on the play- the actors know if they see me, the play is going to change. Never open the play till there’s a cut on every page -- one of the mottos I live by. I made cuts flying back from the final run through and sent them. I really thought I would simplify and normalize; I thought certain things wouldn’t work and actually I’ve tried to sort of double down on the mysteries of the play. And it’s surprised me that I did that and time will tell whether that was good or bad.
NE: As someone with very deep Seattle roots, how is it different to launch a play from Humana than to launch a play from Seattle?
SD: It’s harder. There’s just simply more pressure to launch a play from Humana. My experience has been absolutely fantastic but this theatre needs to organize itself around 6 or 7 plays. As challenging as it is to launch a play at Seattle Rep or ACT or Seattle Children’s Theatre, for that window of time that theatre has organized itself — or you want to believe that that’s true — around your play. There’s the pressure of national press; it’s just a different roll of the dice. In the electronic age, my play that opens at Seattle Rep or ACT, the social media & online reviews about it are known immediately in Cleveland. And that’s been a complete change in my career. It used to be that you could open a play, and no matter how it went you may get to try it somewhere else. In some sense now every opening of a new play is a national opening. It’s just that Humana is more explicit about that. Most of that is actually pretty good and I’d like to think we find new playwrights more efficiently now. I think Umbrella Project is in the heart of that. Someone in LA will read about a new play in Boston that’s amazing. But I wonder what that’s like for the young playwright. Or the new playwright. I got to build my craft really pretty slowly. Slower than I probably wanted to given my youthful ambitions. I don’t know if that happens now.
NE: I think there’s a sense that people are slightly hesitant about giving Seattle their premiere. We premiere so many new plays and so many of them don’t get to continue. UP is really looking at how to make sure there is a bridge from Seattle to the national conversation. How do we make sure that more things like Threesome and Come from Away are the stories we’re hearing about coming out of Seattle?
In your opinion, do plays have to come out of New York or do they have to come out of Humana in order to have that gold star to get produced other places or to get that regional pick up?
SD: My career has been made by the plays of mine that have premiered in Seattle. Straight up. Full stop. Very few of those plays have gone to New York. So I think there are two different things. It’s so fantastic what happened with Yussef’s play but I think that the New York connection is an absolutely different machine than the regional connection. In my opinion, Seattle is at its best when it makes plays for Seattle. The thing I love about Chicago is that they have that attitude of, “We’re gonna make our plays” and then ironically these amazing plays that come out of Chicago go to NYC. I would take the Seattle talent, acting community, and designers over any community in the United States. But how do we inspire playwrights and artistic leaders to make the necessary plays for them? I know everyone in our city has this goal and I’m hopeful, ever hopeful, that we can turn the national theatre scene a little more Emerald.
NE: When you’re writing a play, are you thinking about this play’s audience or are you writing the story that’s inspiring you in the moment?
SD: I’m thinking about this play’s theatre. I don’t believe in a uniform response so I think that’s a good question for writers to ask themselves. I’ll write a different play for the Seattle Repertory Theatre than I would for ACT or SCT. I love the challenge of trying to rise to the strengths of these theatres that I know and love. If I can maximize those strengths, that play will, to the extent that I can control it, have a strong launch and hopefully a good life. If I try to look past (and I have been guilty of this) and game the system, like, “Oh this play would ALSO be really good at…” This is the road that our playwright brains go down sometimes and maybe it’s helpful to others but I become a very unattractive person when I think I can “game” the ongoing reception of my work.
NE: That aligns so well with what we’re looking at with Umbrella Project. The best version of matchmaking, or, “Who’s going to set this play up for success?
SD: I think it’s a great thing to have someone outside the writer doing that. Theaters bundle. Like Amazon. If you like this show then you’d probably like this, etc. The National New Play Network (NNPN) is, in my opinion, at the forefront of this: theatres contributing to each other -- via shared scripts, resources, “rolling world premieres”, etc. -- rather than always competing with each other.
NE: What’s your Humana survival tool?
SD: Generosity. We’re the recipients of so much attention and hoopla that it can create this sort of odd competitive atmosphere among the writers. Just meeting and thanking the other playwrights for their work keeps me grounded.
Gavin Reub wants to put Gamer Culture (and sub-culture) Front and Center: Umbrella Project in conversation with director of Annex Theatre's PUNY HUMANS.
Gavin Reub, director of Puny Humans opening tonight at Annex Theatre, takes us deeper into gamer culture, Comic-Con, and the best way to unwind after journeying into the world Bret Fetzer & Keiko Green have created.
NE: As dramaturgs, we always start with: Why this play now? What are Seattle audiences going to connect to in this play?
GR: Just two weeks ago the Emerald City Comic-Con dominated downtown Seattle. People dressed as their favorite hero/villain/poke-creature and gathered together to celebrate a conglomeration of cultures that, until about a decade ago, had been pretty much ignored in the United States. Like some kind of hyperbolic Michael Chekhov exercise, people could close their eyes, step into their fantasies, and run a muck in a place of comfort. Video games, movies, and comics are doorways to our imagination. For many this is the way to find safety, and a new form of identity.
The Con may get some press in Seattle for its costumes and downtown traffic, but it’s what you see when you zoom in that really matters; whole sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of culture whose stories have not only gone untold, but generally ignored. It has been well documented that many people who partake in 'non-traditional' cultures are labeled as odd and then left to their oddness, when the reality is that this is how they find solace in their differences from the 'normal' world. People with depression, mental, and other unseen illnesses, are often attracted to comic culture, and are then washed off as 'another one of the strange' by the mass perspective.
Take This is a non-profit that seeks to inform our community about mental health issues, to provide education about mental disorders and mental illness prevention, and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. This comes from their experience of the ignored diagnosis in gamer culture.
This is also the scene of the famous, and growing "gamergate." The tide of female gamers is more than just here, it is up to our neck, and it is beyond time that it was recognized. Sexism is still ridiculously prevalent in gamer culture, at times being a give-in for the gaming community. I knew I grew up playing under the incorrect assumption that most players were men. I still often do. Women are a classically forgotten facet of nerd/geek/gamer culture, but the light is expanding in attempt to give an equal voice to non-male identifying portions of the community. For a culture that is so often associated with open choice and flamboyant flag flying due to it's colorful comic-con showings, there is still a deep-seeded hate that runs through the community. An anonymous culture that is so riddled with loathing and trolls that abuse has become the norm. Finally the tide is turning, and these aggressively racist, homophobic, and generally bigoted people are being stood up against. This play is one of those voices.
Also, I just don't want to see another play right now that is about my parents in a living room.
NE: Amen. What has it been like to work with two playwrights, co-authors, on the script?
GR: It was great. Bret and Keiko are wonderful writers, with unique voices, who came together seamlessly to build this script. It felt like they started in individual places of inspiration, then formed into a beautiful Voltron of constructive criticism to build a script that is a complex portrait of the changing face of culture, nerdom, and the world. They became their own critics, voices of reason, and tag team, allowing me to focus on the work I needed to do in tying the whole thing together.
Sometimes I felt like they came together to create one playwright and one dramaturg, working together throughout the process. It's nice to be given the gift of perspective when working on a piece of art. PLUS, we could fit more sub-cultures and references into the play with a two-headed writing team, then any singular nerd could concoct. It's our own mini Justice League, methinks.
NE: So, what’s been the biggest surprise for you so far in directing this play?
GR: You know... people say costumes change a play, but I've never seen that be so true. When you are running on a shoe-string budget, a beautiful but sparse set, and a reference laden play, you don't have a clue what you really have until the first time you see Batman and Joker play Magic: The Gathering against one another, then you TRULY know what beauty is.
I've also been surprised by how excitedly people have clung to this play. It is obvious there is a deep seeded need for more characters and stories like these. It's not just the growing fan-base, either; it's the late night conversations with actors about which HP house Batman would be in (still a heated debating going about Ravenclaw or Griffindor), the arguments about Pikachu's selfie skills, and the place of Dragonball amongst the great comics of all time. Would you rather read Dragonball, or Watchmen?
NE: I've yet to read either... sounds like I have some homework before tonight! Any specific recommendations before audiences come to see the show?
GR: I've been binge watching Anime. There is a new Gundam out which is rad. If I were you, however, I'd arrive a half hour early, play some video games, get a drink, and then read the entirety of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. Really though, you should plan a week of prep. This play has so many references that I will honestly buy a drink for someone who gets all of them.
Monday: Star Wars.
Wednesday: Play Magic with a friend.
Saturday: Spirited Away.
Sunday: Street Fighter.
Then you come see the show (maybe after a cup of joe at Ray Gun), and stay to have a drink with the cast. We will talk for hours.
NE: Afterwards, audiences will want to...
GR: I usually spend the nights after tech going to Cal Anderson with my two light-sabers, a side blaster, bad ass helm, and play this song on repeat while defeating my enemies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uILUCplfi-M
Kind of like this but with more blasters and hip hop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emrSVgJ_x5I
NE: What’s next for this play?
GR: As our character Gordon says, "It doesn't matter. What I've said will resonate through this facility, and now . . . the world." We’re excited to see who this play resonates with and where it might go next.
Puny Humans by Bret Fetzer and Keiko Green opens tonight at Annex Theatre and runs Thursday/Friday/Saturday nights at 7:30pm through May 14, 2016. Buy tickets here.