Most playwrights are itinerant by necessity. They alight momentarily at one theater to discuss a script before moving on to the next, with little time to get a feel for a troupe’s key players or its mission. It is their words, their work, being acted out on stage, yet they are outsiders looking in.
But two Minneapolis playwrights, Kira Obolensky and Aditi Kapil, have struck a kind of gold seldom found in their profession — three-year residencies, complete with salaries and benefits, granted by the Mellon Foundation to 14 writer/theater duos across the country.
Both women are working for theaters with which they’ve previously collaborated. Obolensky is writing her third play in as many years for Ten Thousand Things, which puts on shows at a variety of venues, including prisons and low-income community centers. Over at Mixed Blood Theatre, Kapil is applying her talents to the company’s social media and imagery as well as works for the stage.
Obolensky, whose second play under the residency, “Forget Me Not When Far Away,” opens Friday, works so closely with TTT director Michelle Hensley that the two finish each other’s sentences.
“Eight out of 10 commissioned plays don’t ever get produced, so being asked to write plays for this particular theater, knowing that they’ll get made, is incredible,” Obolensky said. “I had four adjunct teaching jobs that I was able to drop and focus solely on Ten Thousand Things.”
Hensley said, “This is such a great experiment, to see what happens when a playwright has the same status as a top executive.”
One of the key advantages, for both sides, has been Obolensky’s chance to become deeply familiar with what kind of material works for TTT’s wide variety of audiences.
“Playwrights don’t usually write with an audience in mind, but you start looking for the access points — the humor, the empathy — that will engage incarcerated men and women,” she said. “You have to convey hope, in a fairy-tale world where no one’s an expert. You need to have ambiguous endings that ask really big questions.”
Over at Mixed Blood, Kapil has opted for a somewhat different embedding strategy.
In late 2013, she premiered a trilogy in repertory that previously had been in the works.
“I credit Mellon for my sanity that year, because usually playwrights aren’t getting paid for the rehearsal time it takes to get a world premiere mounted,” Kapil said. “I didn’t have to hustle to find other paying work while trying to complete this huge artistic undertaking.”
She’s also helping artistic director Jack Reuler create a curated list of plays by and about people with disabilities to disseminate as a way of encouraging more theaters to put on such work, and helping create a cohesive “story” that makes the theater’s image, voice and online presence clear and stronger.
Hayley Finn, associate artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, has been following both residencies, reporting on them for the theater website howlround.com.
“For the writer, the residency offers the rare security of significant financial support and the opportunity to deeply connect with a specific audience,” Finn said. “The theater gets a new artistic eye on its programming and vision.”