Most performance stages across the country are empty due to COVID-19. But this doesn’t mean playwrights have to stop writing. A northern Illinois theater is giving these artists a medium to showcase their work.
The Kane Repertory Theatre in St. Charles started a project in May called the New Play Lab.
Daniil Krimer is the artistic director of the theater. He said COVID-19 created a grim outlook for live production. And Krimer said he thought about all of the authors who were trying to workshop their plays.
“So, what if we were to offer this program where we get these rolling submissions of playwrights from across the country. We pick plays that we think, you know, are worth workshopping,” he explained. “And then we provide them with a Zoom rehearsal space. We find the actors. We find the director and then we livestream it.”
He used social media to get the word out.
“I added myself to a lot of playwriting Facebook groups. And I basically made a post,” Krimer said.
Krimer expressed that a lot of high-level artists across the country have been intrigued by this project. The program has received more than 300 submissions so far.
Avery Bowne is the managing director of the theater. He said he and Krimer looked at certain criteria when choosing the writers.
Bowne said one of the initial factors was if the play could be done via Zoom.
“And then we asked ourselves, ‘What is something that is going to really speak to the moment right now, in our experiences, like Americans in general?’” he questioned. “I think that we want to help push forward conversations.”
Krimer added that they also looked at plays that break new ground in some way.
“We have a bunch of plays that I think are unique in their subject matter and the issues they're bringing up,” he explained. “Adam Kraar, who was our first playwright, wrote a play Sputnik in Suburbia. And it was about 1950s America and Laika and Sputnik. And there's a scene where the dog in space is having a conversation with the kid.”
Krimer said he and Bowne feel that the New Play Lab is making a difference in American theater.
Adam Kraar lives in the state of New York. He said at first he was reluctant about doing things virtually.
“One of the things I love about live theater is the interaction with the audience,” he said. “Even though I'm not up there onstage, I can see how an audience helps make a play come to life in the room.”
Kraar said he’s affiliated with a national organization based in Minneapolis called Playwrights’ Center. That’s how he learned about the New Play Lab.
“And I was really intrigued with the Kane Rep [Repertory] opportunity because I had just finished this brand new play and was really wanting to just hear it,” he disclosed. “And, it sounded like they were sort of devoting themselves to serving playwrights.”
Bowne said the plays are livestreamed. But before that there are workshops for the playwrights and the creative team.
“Usually the playwright is there and they begin to collaborate. The actors have questions, they explore these characters, the director helps them find the humanity,” he said.
Kraar said it’s important to hear other people give a voice to the playwright’s words.
“And I was really craving that for this play. For most of my plays that sets an early developmental step,” he said. “Just hearing it and seeing what it's like aloud as opposed to on the page.”
He said the workshop allowed him to do that.
Kristen Palmer is a playwright from Connecticut. She was a part of the second cycle of the New Play Lab with her play Mentors. She said things happened fast when the pandemic hit.
“And for me personally, I had like, I think five readings that were scheduled, canceled on one day. It was kind of astonishing just watching everything shut down, in March.”
Palmer said playwrights and theaters quickly tried to figure out what was possible.
She said the Kane Repertory Theatre seized the moment when they came up with this project. She said it was perfect for her play.
“It's a play that is set in one location, and three characters, and very much about the development of the story through their conversation, which did make for good audio limited visual experience,” she said.
Krimer said their organization makes sure all the artists are compensated.
“Avery and I don't see a paycheck for this,” he disclosed. “But we think that it's important especially at a time where a lot of artists are having trouble finding income -- through what they're good at -- that we support artists for their work.”
Kraar and Palmer each have another form of income. They both teach. In fact, Kraar said he’s been busier since the pandemic.
“What's ironic is, since the pandemic that work has actually increased,” he said. “There just seem to be more people wanting to take some time to develop their playwriting craft.”
Krimer wants all types of artists to remember that commercial success and talent don't always go hand in hand. He said a lot of talented people are not able to make a living doing what they are gifted at.
“What's going to happen on the other side of COVID is there are going to be the people that spent this time being upset about the fact that they couldn't apply for any jobs,” he explained. “Or there are going to be the people that have created a lot of content and are taking a step forward in terms of their craft.”
Palmer, for one, said she is taking advantage of this time.
“And a few weeks back, I was just writing like a short play a day, giving myself a prompt or task and doing that,” she said. “And some of those turned into plays that's like, ‘Oh, that could live on Zoom or that lives in that world.’”
Kraar suggests that people should continue to find ways to come together -- even if it’s online.
“I just find for myself and for a lot of my students that [the] ability to have a community of writers -- hearing each other's work offering feedback -- it's actually keeping a lot of people creating and feeling hopeful about theater, which I need,” he shared.
YouTube livestreams of the readings are played every Wednesday during the cycle. They are not recorded so you’ll have to be in the viewing audience if you want to catch them. The third cycle of the New Play Lab starts August 19th.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.