As some of you already know, I am a playwright, which can sometimes be a thankless undertaking. It's often an exhausting, frustrating avocation. Except for a tiny percentage of playwrights, it's not the sort of activity that will ever bring fame, and, even for them, it doesn't bring fortune. You're lucky to get a play produced at all, and, if you do, it will probably only ever receive one production, by a small storefront theater, to a dwindling audience of middle-aged and old white people. It will receive lukewarm reviews from a local critic and then pass into posterity, unremembered and unrewarded.
But I can't stop, damn it. I've been writing plays since I was a boy and will so so until I'm very old, because playwright isn't a career or a hobby, it is a compulsion. And, criticisms aside, it's worthwhile. Theater allows an author to write in a way afforded by no other form. It allows ideas to be staged dramatically, and pushes language into the forground, in a way that film and television can't. It exists in a liminal space that, even with realistic plays, allow for abstraction and metaphor, and it provides an audience that appreciates these things. Further, theater is one of the few remaining places where I see dramatic art that surprises me, and I like to be surprised.
I have been working on a Yiddish-themed play, and have been thinking about what to do with the play once it is written.
My first step was putting together a list of theaters that specialize in Jewish-themed plays, which I will publish in the next week or so, when I complete it. But I noticed that very few of them develop new plays, and that, even when they do, regional Jewish theaters don't have a good track record of producing plays that go on to have a long life of additional productions at other theaters.
I decided to take a little time to look at Jewish-themed plays that do have a healthy life. American Theatre puts out an annual list of the most produced plays in America, although it should be noted that this is limited to theaters that are members of the Theatre Communications Group, which represents a specific selection of semi-professional to professional nonprofit theaters. This leaves out amateur companies, of which there are a superabundance (most theater companies her in Omaha, as an example, are amateur companies), as well as many community theaters, which are semi-abundant.There are also a fair number of for-profit theaters left off this list, so, who knows, there might be something called "Yankel's Kishkas" that is making the rounds of these theaters, enjoying hundred of productions per year, and neither I nor American Theatre has ever heard of it.
So take this list for what it is, limitations and all. I was curious to see who is writing the popular American Jewish theater and where the plays are getting their start, because if you're like me and want to write a play that has a life longer than that of a mayfly, you need to pitch to certain theaters. You need to pitch to theaters where plays start their lives, and not end them.
A few notes at the end of the list.
BAD JEWS by Joshua Harmon
Plot: After a beloved grandfather dies in New York, leaving a treasured piece of religious jewelry that he succeeded in hiding even from the Nazis during the Holocaust, cousins fight over not only the family heirloom, but their "religious faith, cultural assimilation, and even the validity of each other's romances.”
The playwright: Joshua Harmon (born 1983) is a New York City-based playwright, whose works include "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other," both produced off-Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company.
Harmon has also had his plays produced and developed by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ars Nova, the O'Neill and Actor's Express. He has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Eudora Welty Foundation.
Production history: The play premiered Off-Broadway in October 2012 at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre and then transferred to the Rondabout's Laura Pels Theatre. The play opened at the Laura Pels Theatre on October 3, 2013 and closed on December 29, 2013. Directed by Daniel Aukin, the cast for both productions featured Tracee Chimo as Diana, Michael Zegen as Liam, Molly Ranson as Melody, and Philip Ettinger as Jonah.
The UK premiere, directed by Michael Longhurst, was at Bath's Ustinov Studio in August 2014 before transferring in 2015 to the West End at the St. James Theatre and in 2015 at the Arts Theatre, in London. Among regional productions, it played in 2014 and was revived in 2015 at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC and ran at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It is being revived in 2016 at the Haymarket Theatre.
BUYER AND CELLAR by Jonathan Tollins
Plot: an outrageous new comedy about the oddest of odd jobs: “an underemployed Los Angeles actor going to work in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement.”
The Playwright: Jonathan Tollins’ plays include "The Twilight of the Golds" (Broadway, Booth Theatre), "If Memory Serves" (Promenade), "The Last Sunday in June" (Rattlestick, Century Center) and "Secrets of the Trade" (Primary Stages). A collection of his plays has been published by Grove/Atlantic. His film work includes "The Twilight of the Golds" and "Martian Child." For television, he was a writer for “Queer as Folk,” The Academy Awards, The Tony Awards and “Partners.” He was the author of "Pushkin 200: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," acted as script consultant on "Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular," and co-wrote "The Divine Millennium Tour" and "The Showgirl Must Go On" for Bette Midler. He has written articles for Opera News, Opera Monthly, TheaterWeek, Time magazine and The Huffington Post, and is a panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Radio Quiz. He lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with his husband, the writer and director Robert Cary, and their children, Selina and Henry. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America.
Production History: "Buyer & Cellar" premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2013.
Winner of the 2014–2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show
DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar
Plot: The play is centered on sociopolitical themes such as Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim-American citizens. It focuses on a dinner party between four people with very different backgrounds. n all, the dinner table assembly includes an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew and a WASP dining over the topic of religious faith. As discussion turns to politics and religion, the mood quickly becomes heated. Described as a "combustible powder keg of identity politics," the play depicts racial and ethnic prejudices that "secretly persist in even the most progressive cultural circles." It is also said to depict the challenge for upwardly mobile Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 America.
The Playwright: Akhtar was born in Staten Island, New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Akhtar's interest in writing was initially sparked in high school, when a teacher introduced him to European Modernism. Akhtar later attended Brown University where he majored in theater and began acting in student plays. After graduation he moved to Italy and studied acting with Jerzy Grotowski for a year, eventually becoming his assistant. Upon returning to the United States, Akhtar taught acting classes with Andre Gregory and earn his Master of Fine Arts degree in film directing from Columbia University School of the Arts.
Production history: "Disgraced" was originally scheduled at the American Theater Company in Chicago, Illinois, to run February 3 — March 4, 2012, with an official debut of February 6. Eventually the run was moved forward one week to January 27 — February 26, 2012, with an official January 30 debut. On February 21, its run was extended in Chicago until Mar 11, 2012.
It made its New York debut of its Off-Broadway run at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater with an October 22, 2012, premiere and was scheduled to run until November 18 before being extended until December 2. Hurricane Sandy caused the cancellation of the October 28 and 29 evening performances but not the October 28 matinee. On November 1, it was extended again until December 23.
On February 6, 2013, the London premiere of the play was announced as an Off West End opening at the Bush Theatre, beginning in May 2013 under the direction of Nadia Fall. Its previews were scheduled to begin on May 17 before opening on May 22 and running until June 15. On March 15, Disgraced was extended until June 22. The play opened as scheduled on May 22. That July, the producer Matthew Rego announced that the show was being considered for a Broadway run during the 2013–14 season. On June 10, 2014, was announced to have a Broadway run starting on October 23, following previews beginning September 27 at the Lyceum Theatre.
Disgraced began its limited run on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with preview performances on September 27. Opening night was October 23, 2014 with an original announced run lasting until February 15, 2015. In January, the closure of the engagement was announced for March 1. Direction is by Kimberly Senior, sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and lighting by Ken Posner. The cast includes Danny Ashok, Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, and Josh Radnor.
2012 Joseph Jefferson Award: New Work – Play or Musical
2013 Pulitzer Prize – Drama
2013 Obie Award – Playwrighting
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS by Ron Hutchinson
Plot: 1939 Hollywood is abuzz. Legendary producer David O. Selznick has shut down production of his new epic, "Gone with the Wind," a film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel. The screenplay, you see, just doesn't work. So what's an all-powerful movie mogul to do? While fending off the film's stars, gossip columnists and his own father-in-law, Selznick sends a car for famed screenwriter Ben Hecht and pulls formidable director Victor Fleming from the set of "The Wizard of Oz." Summoning both to his office, he locks the doors, closes the shades, and on a diet of bananas and peanuts, the three men labor over five days to fashion a screenplay that will become the blueprint for one of the most successful and beloved films of all time.
The Playwright: Ron Hutchinson (born near Lisburn, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) is an Emmy Award winning screenwriter and an Olivier Award nominated playwright, known for writing John Frankenheimer's "Against the Wall," Robert M. Young's "Slave of Dreams," John Frankenheimer's "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "Moonlight and Magnolias" (play), and the 2004 miniseries "Traffic."
"Moonlight & Magnolias" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was nominated for the 2004 Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work. "The Irish Play" was performed in a Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Royal Shakespeare Company Warehouse Theatre in London, England with Ron Cook, Brenda Fricker, and P.G. Stephens in the cast. Barry Kyle was director.
Brought up and educated in Coventry, Hutchinson has written stage and radio plays as well as his screenwriting. He now lives in Los Angeles, California with his second wife and adopted daughter.
Production History: Moonlight and Magnolias premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2004.
Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2005.
TRIBES by Nina Raine
The plot: The play focuses on a comically dysfunctional Jewish British family, made up of the parents Beth and Christopher and three grown children living at home, Daniel, Ruth and Billy, the last of whom is deaf, raised to read lips and speak but without knowledge of sign language. When Billy meets Sylvia, a hearing woman born to deaf parents who is now slowly going deaf herself, his interaction with her (including her teaching him sign language) reveals some of the languages, beliefs, and hierarchies of the family and the "extended family" of the deaf community.
The Playwright: Nina Raine is an English theatre director and playwright, and the only daughter of the poet Craig Raine and Ann Pasternak Slater; she is also a grand niece of the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak.
She graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1998 with a First in English Literature.
Production History: The play was first staged October 14-November 13, 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was directed by Roger Michell and starred Jacob Casseldon, Nina Markham, Michelle Terry, Stanley Townsend, Harry Treadaway, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 4, 2012 and closed on January 20, 2013, having been extended twice. Directed by David Cromer, the cast starred Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Jeff Perry, and Mare Winningham. The Scenic Design was by Scott Pask, costumes by Tristan Raines, lights by Keith Parham, sound by Daniel Kluger and projections by Jeff Sugg.
The production had a West Coast transfer after closing in New York and was remounted at the Centre Theater Group, The Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, for a limited run from February 2013 through April 2013, and with most of the original cast (NY replacements Lee Roy Rogers and Jeff Still took over as Beth and Christopher).
It then ran at the La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego, California, in June and July 2013, also directed by David Cromer. The play ran at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from October through November 2013, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. It was then produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon in February 2015.
The Canadian debut was produced by Theatrefront in association with Canadian Stage and Theatre Aquarius with shows at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre. The cast included Stephen Drabicki, Patricia Fagan, Nancy Palk, Joseph Ziegler, Holly Lewis and Dylan Trowbridge, directed by Daryl Cloran.
2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play
2012 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Foreign Play
2012 Obie Award, Performance, Susan Pourfar
2012 Off-Broadway Alliance Award – Best Play
THE WHIPPING MAN by Matthew Lopez
Plot: It is Passover, 1865. The Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. One of these homes, belonging to the DeLeons of Virginia, sits in ruins. Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon has returned from the war to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining. Caleb is badly wounded and the two men, Simon and John, are forced to care for him.
As the three men wait for the family's return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets along the way as well as new ones. Slavery and war, they discover, warp even good men's souls.
The Playwright: Matthew Lopez is the author of "The Whipping Man," one of the most widely produced new American plays of the last several years. The play premiered at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ and debuted in New York at Manhattan Theatre Club. That production was directed by Doug Hughes and starred Andre Braugher. The sold-out production extended four times, ultimately running 101 performances off-Broadway and garnering Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards. Matthew was awarded the John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle for the play. Since then, it has been received over 40 productions worldwide. His play Somewhere has been produced at the Old Globe, TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and most recently at Hartford Stage Company, where his play Reverberation will receive its world premiere in 2015. His newest play, The Legend of Georgia McBride, premiered earlier this year at the Denver Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. His play The Sentinels premiered in London at Headlong Theatre Company in 2011. Matthew currently holds new play commissions from Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Hartford Stage, and South Coast Rep. Matthew was a staff writer on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and is currently adapting Javier Marias’ trilogy “Your Face Tomorrow” for the screen.
April 2006 - World Premiere at Luna Stage Company in Montclair, NJ
February 2009 - Production at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN
May 2010 - West Coast Premiere at Old Globe in San Diego, CA
June 2010 - New England Premiere at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA
February 2011 - New York Premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, NY
Winner of the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle.
A few notes: Firstly, American theater currently seems to be pretty interested in plays with Jewish themes or Jewish characters. In the past few years, the percentage of most-produced plays that include Jewish subject matter has increased consistently, with two plays this year representing 27 total productions, and three plays the previous year representing 22 productions.
Surprisingly, half of these plays were not written by Jews. Of the six plays listed above, only three -- "Bad Jews," "Buyer and Cellar," and "Tribes" -- were written by authors with significant Jewish heritage. (Lopez, who wrote "The whipping Man," has a Jewish aunt, but was raised Episcopalian and had little familiarity with Judaism before writing the play.) Ayad Akhtar is, of course, Muslim, and his play "Disgraced" is mostly a play about the Muslim experience, although it features a Jewish character.
None of these plays debuted at theaters primarily known for producing Jewish material, and most debuted at theaters with a history of developing new work which then transfers to a larger theater. Two of the plays debuted in New York and two in Chicago, while Tribes debuted in London.
Hearteningly, "The Whipping Man" blazed its own trail, starting in New Jersey and moving to St. Paul, and on for two additional regional productions before making it to New York. So it is not necessary to have your play open at in America's largest cities for them to go on to be widely produced -- although goodness knows it helps.
I should take a moment to discuss the content of these plays. Two of them deal with celebrities: Barbra Streisand in "Buyer and Cellar" and the old Hollywood studio heads of "Moonlight and Magnolias." "Disgraced," "Tribes," and "The Whipping Man" all deal with what could be called "social issues": Islamophobia, disability, and racism. "Bad Jews" is the outlier, in that its primarily about an internecine squabble in a dysfunctional family, although it should be noted that this is tried and true theatrical territory.
None of this is meant to be a prescription for writing a successful Jewish play. I don't know that such a prescription exists, because had somebody suggested a few years ago that one of the most successful American plays the looks at the Jewish experience would be written by a British Muslim or a Puerto Rican Episcopalian writing for a New Jersey heater, I think we all would have been surprised.
I'll be curious to see what surprised me next.