Jeremy Cohen: new-play booster

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2012 - 12:16 PM

The head of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis wants us to talk more, and to see more new plays.

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When news broke recently that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for "Water by the Spoonful," Jeremy Cohen let out a big woohoo! in Minneapolis. Cohen was part of the team at Hartford Stage in Connecticut that commissioned Hudes to write the second work in a trilogy centered on an Iraq war veteran. (The third play in the series, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," will premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in April 2013.)

"Quiara is arguably one of the most exciting playwrights in the country," said Cohen, 39. "Her stories are full of lyricism and light and drenched in emotional truths. And the thing is, there are so many great playwrights writing now."

A passionate, voluble champion of new plays, he came to the Twin Cities in 2010 to head the 1,200-member Playwrights' Center. He sees his job as connecting playwrights and producers, advocating for writers and thinking about the theater field at large.

"We're in a great moment in playmaking, with lots of talent sprouting up to reflect the great changes that are afoot in terms of demographics, technology, our position in the world," he said. "Artists, and playwrights especially, have a vital role to play in helping us see our way through that."

The bespectacled Cohen speaks in a rush that suggests his tongue is being overwhelmed by thoughts. He looks like a scholar, with religious intensity.

Cohen was born and reared in Amherst, Mass., where his mother worked as an office manager and his father was a school counselor. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1995, with a double major in theater and psychology and a minor in dance.

Unsure of what career path to take after college, he became a counselor at a rape-crisis and HIV-testing center before getting an internship at Chicago's esteemed Goodman Theatre. He went gaga for performing arts in the Windy City, getting hands-on experience under the Goodman's Robert Falls and Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Cohen left Chicago in 2004 to become associate artistic director at Hartford Stage.

In 2010, he succeeded Polly Carl as head of the Playwrights' Center. For starters, he saw as much local theater as he could.

"In this artistic community, there's so much great work -- devised work, ensemble work," he said. "We're in the process of re-building our identity as a community."

"We're all in our own silos here," he said. "People stay segregated off in their own artistic worlds, so there's less of a bigger thinking about the community. Why are there three productions of 'Death of a Salesman' happening at the same time? It's okay to say everything isn't perfect if it isn't. That doesn't mean we're a bad community because we name those issues."

Recently, work took him to the East Coast. He directed an adaptation of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" at the New Victory Theater in Times Square.

For all the excitement of being in New York, Cohen said he was anxious to get back to his partner, playwright Michael Elyanow, and their son, Milo.

"You know that you've found a special place when you're away and you want nothing more than to come home," he said.

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