From Hartford Stage to NYC: Rethinking New Play Development
By Sally Lobel, Artistic Apprentice
Three recent Hartford Stage commissions have hit New York City: on Broadway, off Broadway, and as part of BAM’S Next Wave Festival.
The world premiere of Bess Wohl’s Make Believe, a Hartford Stage commissioned play, opened the theatre’s 2018/2019 season. Make Believe premiered in New York this August at Second Stage Theatre and recently extended its run through September 22. Wohl’s work, which examines the ways in which events in our childhood continue to resonate and impact us into adulthood, was hailed by The New York Times as “a comedy, a mystery, a tragedy, and a triumph.” Make Believe was dramaturged by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson. Williamson recently described the play as the “riskiest piece I’ve ever developed because its first half is carried entirely by a cast of children—and on a world premiere, you have to take the gamble that we’ll be able to make that work.”
Williamson is currently dramaturging Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, another Hartford Stage commission realized during former Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak’s tenure, which will begin previews September 27 on Broadway. Lopez’s two-part play, inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, is over seven hours long and tells a generation-spanning story of love, isolation, and resilience in the face of the AIDS crisis and its aftereffects. Lopez was an Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage, where three of his plays – The Whipping Man, Somewhere (East Coast premiere), and Reverberation (world premiere) – were produced over several seasons. The Inheritance opened at the Young Vic in London and then transferred to the West End, where it won four Olivier Awards, including Best Play. In a recent piece in London’s Sunday Times, Mark Ravenhill says “[Lopez] attributes the success of the play to the support offered by Williamson at Hartford Stage.”’
Williamson said that Hartford Stage employs a fluid model of new play development, where scripts are workshopped based on the individual needs of each playwright and piece rather than pushed into a “one size fits all model” such as many theatres use. “When I first came into the field, most theatres were primarily developing plays through readings, which in my experience is not the best way to support every project. So I start by asking what support each piece needs to get to the point where it’s ready to be produced and start there,” Williamson explains. “For The Inheritance, first we held a private conversational forum with the playwright, Matthew Lopez, and gay men of different generations, discussing the challenges, both personal and political, of being gay and coming out in their times. The piece then received a series of closed-door week-long developmental workshops figuring out its vocabulary with director Stephen Daldry.”
Make Believe’s development process was tailored to its own unique challenges. According to Williamson, “Bess Wohl needed time with child performers to figure out how to make that work, and we held a series of closed workshops through which Bess structured the kids’ scenes of the play.”
Williamson points to Kaneza Schaal’s genre-crossing Hartford Stage commission JACK & as the perfect example of how a unique development process can be tailored to the needs of a specific piece: “For JACK &, Kaneza asked for time in Hartford with a ballroom dance instructor, and for visits from a number of guest artists, as she spent a week working out different sections of the show. It was another six months, and two more workshops in New York City, before she was ready to put together the piece as a whole.” JACK & had a sold-out run as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival at BAM and then played a return New York City engagement in the spring of 2019 at New York Live Arts.
If you’re curious to hear more of Williamson’s observations about collaborating with playwrights, take a listen to her interview on the Masters of the Stage podcast.
Learn more about this season’s exciting new work at Hartford Stage:
Jane Eyre (An original adaptation by Elizabeth Williamson, who directs)