Nothing about the Playwrights’ Center announces its place in, or impact on, the nation’s theater ecology. Its home is an unassuming former church a mile from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis’ striving Seward neighborhood. Its $1.3 million budget and 10 employees are relatively paltry, even for an arts organization. Nor is there any attention-grabbing language on its website, frequently visited by its membership of 1,600 playwrights.
The 45-year-old center helped launch the careers of August Wilson, Lee Blessing and Suzan-Lori Parks. And now, without much fanfare or fuss, it has managed an even bigger impact on the theater world. In the past few years the center has gone from being a home of writers, and the innovative work they create, to being an active connector of playwrights and theaters.
How did they do that? In 2010, the center hatched a partnership program for American playhouses hungry for new works reflecting our times. Nearly 100 companies have jumped on board so far. And the program has produced dozens of original plays for stages from California to Connecticut, Florida to Washington.
At the same time, the center and a few of its national play-development peers conspired to shift some of the power and attention away from actors and directors. They took deliberate action to shine more light on American play-creators. The center’s leaders started meeting with foundation heads, theater artistic directors and other movers in the field to put writers front-and-center in the conversation.
Foundations rewarded their efforts by increasing grants not only to the Minneapolis-based center, but to playwrights in general. One result was the multimillion-dollar Mellon playwrights initiative, launched in 2012, which embeds salaried playwrights at theaters for three years. The program is co-administered by HowlRound, another play-development organization founded by former Playwrights’ Center head Polly Carl.
Much of the credit for the center’s rising reputation goes to Jeremy Cohen, who succeeded Carl in 2010 as artistic producing director. Cohen, who worked at theater companies in Hartford, Conn., and Chicago, built on Carl’s legacy and expanded the center’s remit. He also brought his deep national connections to Minnesota, which came in handy as the center expanded its reach.
“It’s a really exciting time because theater is part of our most urgent and relevant conversations about who we are and what we want to be as people,” said Cohen from New York, where he was pounding the pavement making connections for playwrights.
At its heart the center, which still retains the quietude of a church, remains an organization dedicated to playwrights. And they are fiercely dedicated to it. Ask playwright Carson Kreitzer what the center means to her, and she breaks out into veritable song.
“It’s a sanctuary, a clubhouse, a place where you go to recharge,” she said. “It’s my artistic home.”
Kreitzer, who trained at Yale and Brown, moved to the Twin Cities from New York in 2000 for a fellowship at the center. She expected to stay for nine months. Sixteen years later, she cannot fathom living anywhere else. She’s had nearly a dozen plays produced nationally. Her biggest ones include “The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” about the father of the atomic bomb; “Behind the Eye,” about model, photographer and surrealist muse Lee Miller, and “Lasso of Truth,” about the creator of Wonder Woman.
“Lasso” was developed at the Playwrights’ Center over a three-year period before it premiered at the Marin (Calif.) Theatre Company in February 2014. The theater’s artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, even flew to Minnesota to hear readings and attend workshops.
“The Playwrights’ Center is a great, rare developmental partner for producing organizations around the country,” said Minadakis. “In a lot of ways, they’re like extensions of the development wings of regional theaters across the country but without some of the things that may hamstring organizations.”
The center has grown haphazardly, and organically, since its founding by students in Charles Nolte’s acting class at the University of Minnesota in 1971.
“At first, we just wanted to write plays,” said co-founder Barbara Field. “That was enough. But it’s grown beyond our wildest imaginations.”
As the center expands its mission and incubates a greater number of plays, it benefits more than ever from its location in the Twin Cities, where it can draw on an acting pool that’s as good as anything one finds in Chicago or on the coasts. “I’m sure that people in Minnesota take it for granted, but you shouldn’t,” said New York playwright Lauren Yee. “I can do anything at the center, and do it in a relatively quiet way without the pressure that you have elsewhere.”
Relieving the pressure
Writers don’t feel that pressure when workshopping a piece at the Playwrights’ Center. There they enjoy the flexibility to change actors or directors or anything they wish. At a theater, whether in New York, Chicago or elsewhere, or even a play development center like the Lark in New York or the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford, Conn., an early casting choice sometimes signals a commitment to the final production. Many actors sure hope so. But the center keeps the process more fluid, operating outside the usual rules.
“It takes pressure off theaters to have someone like the Playwrights’ Center offer support,” said Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts. Reyes recalled that when he and young playwright Jessica Huang first started talking about her idea for a play about a biracial young woman’s exploration of her ancestry, he was not sure how to get the work developed. Mu didn’t have the funds to pay actors.
“Jessica had this great idea and when we first got together to hear it, we paid the actors with pizza and wine,” he said. “That was the extent of our budget until the Playwrights’ Center stepped in and said, ‘You can do it here.’ ”
That play, “Purple Cloud,” premiered last December in Minneapolis.
“It may have happened without the Playwrights’ Center, because I’m pretty determined, but it would have taken a longer time,” said Huang.
Playwright Idris Goodwin, who lives in Colorado Springs, considers the Twin Cities his second home because of the center. “When I was working on my hip-hop play, I needed a rapper to deliver some of it, because it’s not just acting, and they got Maria Isa,” he said. “She’s dope.”
That’s what folks are saying about the Playwrights’ Center, as well.
“The Playwrights’ Center is a national treasure, making a profound difference in the field,” said Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is one of the center’s producing partners.
Added Todd London, former head of New Dramatists, a play-development organization based in New York: “They’re advocates, connectors and facilitators in this final phase between the playwright and the producers, and it’s fantastic.”