Tag Archives: playwrights

Artistic Director Padraic Lillis, inspired by baseball farm system, develops new playwrights

By France-Luce Benson

This Saturday we are joined by playwright, director, and Founding Artistic Director of The Farm Theatre, Padraic Lillis. Founded in 2013, The Farm Theatre develops early career artists with limited support systems through workshops, productions, and mentoring. The Farm Theatre’s name is inspired by baseball’s “farm system” to develop new talent. Similarly, Lillis has devoted himself to developing new voices in theatre, as well as mentoring young artists through his work as an educator, and with his own work. His award-winning solo show Hope You Get To Eleven or What Are We Going to do About Sally, about suicide awareness, has been performed at high schools and colleges around the country – and he’ll share an excerpt with us this Saturday. Here, Lillis talks about the timeliness of that play, his love for the Yankees, and hopes for the future of theatre.

How did the Farm Theater come to be?

I am a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, NY and led the education program for a decade. It became clear that the artists and young companies that succeeded were those that had on going contact with mentors and had a community of peer support.  When I had an impulse to start my own company, I recognized that my passion was not in developing and producing plays but that it was developing artists. 

What seeds are you planting for the spring?

I’m developing a lot of new work and mentoring playwrights – and I’m investing in their work. I believe the work that we begin to write and fully develop will be ready to share publicly in the spring. Regardless of the form public productions will take in the spring – we will have a lot of new voices ready to share the stories.

You describe yourself as a life-long Yankee fan; Do you have a favorite memory watching the Yankees? 

I grew up in Upstate New York. Fairport, a suburb of Rochester. I became a Yankee fan probably because of the great history of the team and our cable tv in the 70’s included channel 11 where I could watch the Yankees play every night. A favorite memory of watching Yankees – I have a lot, but one that stands out…and I talk about in my solo show, is game 5 of the 2001 World Series. Top of the 8th inning – and the Yankees are in the field – and the crowd starts chanting “Paul O’Neill, Paul O’Neill” – he’s in right field. He’s retiring after this year. This is his last game at the stadium and the crowd needed to let him know how much they appreciated and valued him. What makes it even more beautiful is that the Yankees were losing. They were about to lose the World Series…but the fans needed to tell Paul O’Neill how much he meant to them. I love that moment.

Do you feel your solo show Hope You Get to Eleven, or What are we going to do about Sally?, about suicide awareness, has significant relevance right now? 

Right now, isolation is a major challenge. Our entire industry is shut down and each of us are being forced to reimagine how we create and share our work. It is incredibly difficult to reimagine your entire identity and how engage with the world. People need to know that they are not alone, that they are not the only ones experiencing difficulty, that need help – and that it is okay not to be perfect or to not know —- how to navigate this change. We’re all figuring it out. 

Do you work with any suicide prevention organizations?

When I present this show for a public audience, I make it a point to raise funds and awareness for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. When I perform the show at high schools and colleges I do it in collaboration with the school counselors – and make sure that each performance has a post-show discussion. For days after each performance I hear audience members share their personal relationship with the issue. I believe the most valuable thing the show does is that it facilitates open dialogue about a disease that preys on secrecy. 

How have you cared for yourself during this time?

I take a walk in nature every day. It gets me out of my apartment, away from my computer, and gives me a chance to appreciate the simplicity of life.

What’s been keeping you sane?

The daily walk. And baseball.

What brings you hope?

This. The fact that your theater has found a way to stay engaged with your community. The plays that people are writing. Zoom readings, audio plays, live streaming…all of the ways that people are finding to create and share their work. I think we can all agree that not all of the forms are completely satisfying – but that fact that we are continuing to create and to share the work is incredibly hopeful. 

France-Luce Benson is a playwright and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.

From rejection pile to Pulitzer Prize: Women of color rise to take stage as playwrights nationwide


DD in NYC 1

Vickie Ramirez, unidentified, Nikkole Salter, Roberta Uno, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Lynn Nottage (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

On March 6th, I had the pleasure of participating in the book launch at The Public Theater for the anthology Contemporary Plays by Women of Color edited by Roberta Uno. Not only was a scene from my play, Gunshot Medley, performed that afternoon but I also performed onstage with my actors Derek Jackson & Morgan Camper. 

Gunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, responding to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. I first wrote the play in response to the Charleston church shootings and the debate surrounding the insensitive usage of the Confederate flag. The play, combining spoken word and live music, sheds new light on the American slave narrative while paying homage to the real Betty, Alvis, and George, three historically documented slaves that died in North Carolina before the emancipation proclamation was signed.

After the selected scene performances, such playwrights included in the anthology as Lynn Nottage, Marissa Chibas, Nikkole Salter, Vickie Ramirez and I signed books in The Public Theater’s lobby. The energy in the room was magnetic and powerful with so many women taking up that kind of space. 

DD in NYC 2

Vickie Ramirez, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Oskar Eustis (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

None of this would have been possible without the genius of Roberta Uno (Director of Arts in a Changing America). Roberta edited the 1st and 2nd editions of the anthology, the 1st edition being published a little over 20 years ago with such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith and Elizabeth Wong. I even remember discovering the 1st edition in my undergraduate library while perusing the shelves, hoping to find work that represented me. As a young undergraduate actress at the California Institute of the Arts, I was thankful to have instructors such as Nataki Garrett and Marissa Chibas who aided in helping me find material I could relate to.

However, I know this is not the case for every young person of color (POC) actor and actress who is currently seeking a degree in acting. So often, I’ve heard my fellow black actors at other institutions talk about not knowing any contemporary black material they can do scene work from. They say that their instructor is usually giving them material from August Wilson’s body of work. Although August Wilson’s work is beautiful and presents the African-American experience in such a deep and profound way, it appears we have forgotten there are other great black writers out there. And, of these overlooked black playwrights, it is the women who are most forgotten.

At the book launch, Roberta Uno spoke about how she acquired a lot of the material for this current anthology. She said she spoke to many theaters and artistic directors asking for their rejection piles. It was clear to her that in this rejection pile was where most of the work submitted by women playwrights resided.

On the bright side, it seems that the theater world is embracing more female playwrights and stories. While I was in NYC that week, I witnessed Soho Rep’s production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is. Not only did I have a mind-blowing experience, but I was in awe and so proud of this all-black cast telling such an epic tale by a young black female playwright. 

is God is

“Is God Is” at Soho Rep.

Is God Is is a fascinating piece of theater because it mixes so many genres: Afro-Punk, Spaghetti Westerns, and experimental theatre all into one cohesive piece. I read the play on my flight to NYC and Harris’s use and experimentation with language completely breaks new ground. Even the way that the actors embodied this text was refreshing and eye-opening. It really inspired me as a young playwright to see other black female writers getting recognition for pushing the boundaries of what a play “can” or “should” be. Harris was actually the first winner of The Relentless Award, which was established to honor actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The American Playwriting Foundation’s website says, “The Relentless Award is the largest annual cash prize in the American Theater awarded to a playwright in recognition of a new play.”

Also, in the past year, women of color playwrights have been killing the game in other avenues. Dominique Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud broke Berkeley Rep’s house record in 2017 and currently, CTG and LATC have produced all three plays in Quiara Alegeria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. It is quite evident that times are changing.  And in the words of Maxine Waters, it appears women of color playwrights are indeed, #ReclaimingOurTime!

Dionna Michelle Daniel is a playwright and the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.



How Do You Define Success?

Polly Carl

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

I’d like to save more money this year. Too much of my budget is going toward J.Crew. But part of how I justify this spending comes from how I identify success for myself. When I can get up in the morning and put on the exact right clothes to express my self, I feel like me all day and my ability to navigate the world goes up exponentially.

This feels shallow and perhaps not something to admit publicly, but it’s as true as anything else about me.

And I think this idea of digging deep or in my case, not so deep, and sorting out “success” for ourselves is perhaps the most important task any of us will face in the coming year—coming to terms with what success looks like both at the surface and down deep.

Success in Theater
I think the idea of what defines success in our field has become significantly more narrow over time, like a uniform you wear day in, day out with no allowance for personal style or taste. In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions of success are coming out of the closet to challenge a version that is just serving as a cover-up from my vantage point.

Tired Trajectory to Success:
Theater artist gets trained > Theater artist emerges > Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.

I realize when theater artists at the front end of that trajectory ask me for advice, I can no longer under any circumstances continue to support the tired trends of the past, hence my recent piece on the MFA question.

This journey toward success suggests many things that I find problematic for any art form:

  1. That success is linear—that becoming a successful theater artist starts at point A and moves its way down the alphabet.
  2. That the definition of success is predetermined.
  3. That success in the theater is realized by simply counting the number of people sitting in the theater who see your writing or your performance or your design—the bigger the house, the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the impact, the bigger the success.

These problems beg the question: Why? Why do we love theater? Why do we make it? Because if in fact we make it to achieve success, and success is a linear and predetermined trajectory decided by theater size, then our definition of success is the same as Wall Street’s. We are training theater artists in the same frame of success as we’re training our future “successful” business leaders—to go down a path of acquisition toward predetermined markers.

NarniaWhy Theater?
Recently, I flew to Minneapolis to see my ten-year-old nephew perform in the musical Narnia. He was one of the youngest performers, played a small bird, and had only two lines. But in talking with him after about the play, about why he loved doing it I heard about the preperformance exercises they do together, about the bonding between the older and more experienced performers and the newbies. I heard about how much he loves to sing. And I watched him after. The entire cast stood in a line in their costumes in the lobby and greeted the audience. Many young fans approached my nephew for his autograph.

I’ve paid pretty close attention to my nephew over the years, held him in my arms as a baby, was the primary babysitter for awhile, hosted him for “Aunt Camp” for a week in the summer and went to museums and ate copious amounts of ice cream with him. And I saw a transformation in him, standing in that line, greeting his audience. He had gravitas. Through several weeks of rehearsal and performance he had gone from a precocious, typically self-centered, I-want-what-I-want kid, to a gracious and more mature ten-year-old.

Fifteen years in, I keep redefining success for myself. I have been thinking since returning from Minneapolis about the immense privilege my nephew has to explore his interests and desires with the support of family and resources. And I keep thinking about what I want theater to mean for myself, my community, my family, and my world.

Success for me might just mean creating theater with more gravitas—a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world—by making theater in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people.

The problem with predetermined paths to success is that for better or worse, the paths are well trodden, and the deep grooves cause us to try and find a way to make ourselves fit into something that has become ossified and unoriginal. And the truth is that not many theater artists, because they are such creative people, can make it down that predetermined road with any regularity.

And strangely, many artists who do find success on these terms don’t recognize it when they get there. I’ve met very few theater artists who will acknowledge that they’ve “made it” even though from the vantage point of those success markers, they clearly have.

Why is that? Is it because they had to make so many compromises along the way? Is it because like for those who go down the Wall Street road, there’s never enough? Never enough money? Accolades? Positive reviews? Awards? Standing Os? Like the billionaires, they’ve spent so much time in acquisition mode, they can’t stop wanting more, they can’t stop and see that at some point there is enough for them, and perhaps in a more generous world, for everyone?

Playwrights' Center

Playwrights’ Center

Clothes Can Never Make the Man
On that same trip to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at my favorite Minneapolis hangout, the Playwrights’ Center. I love that organization so much because it’s a true home for so many theater artists. I sat around with a bunch of those artists and we talked about this very issue, about how they define success for themselves. I fell into that preachy mode that I can sometimes fall into (sorry) and implored them:

  1. Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next play you write or show you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
  2. Commit to the success of at least one or two other theater artists you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
  3. If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.

I’m old enough to know that clothes don’t make the man. I know that no matter how many orders I make to J.Crew, the clothes can never tell the whole story and that the surface can never stand in for the depth. If I can hold this thought long enough I might just save some money this year.

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound.