Behind the Scenes at Playwrights Rep

Brown and Trinity's summer collaboration takes the stage


Forget the air conditioning. If you want to feel cool this summer, snag a seat for the new season of the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep. Featuring world premiere shows from three fierce young talents, the series promises to be a blast of fresh air. It’s billed as a place “where the stars of tomorrow come out tonight,” and has spawned many a hit play over the past seven years. This time, founder and co-artistic director Lowry Marshall says, “It’s going to be one of the top summers that we’ve ever had.”

The program brings together three professional dramatists each season to develop exciting new work. Each play runs for a week, and then they run together in repertory, including a marathon day (August 4) when audiences can catch all three. As director Heidi Handelsman explains, it’s a unique setup. “Whereas other theatres offer up-and-coming playwrights a reading or a workshop of a new play – something private and tucked away from the public eye – Playwrights Rep puts that play right on stage, where it belongs. A play isn’t fully developed until the play and the audience meet.”

Handelsman, an MFA candidate in Directing at Brown/Trinity Rep, helms Principal Principle by Joe Zarrow. Opening July 11, Handelsman describes it as a dark comedy about a new English teacher plunging “down the rabbit role of the public education system.” She notes, “This play hit me immediately when I first read it. My sister teaches third grade in a New York City public school, so I’ve heard a lot of tales from the trenches: overcrowding, insufficient supplies, meaningless standardized tests, and a room full of students living below the poverty line.”

Handelsman continues, “Every story coming out of these schools is a war story, and Joe’s play is no exception. The play asks some big questions: How do you do the right thing when your sense of right and wrong are being constantly challenged? How do you maintain your integrity while you are being constantly worn down? What’s the greater sin – breaking the rules, or following rules that are not worth following?”

Zarrow drew inspiration for Principal Principle from his own experience teaching in Chicago public schools – a job the Brown grad originally hoped would be a career. When school politics and conflicts conflicts left him feeling burnt out, he wondered how anyone managed to teach long-term. He explores these issues in his play, but doesn’t intend it to be a strict criticism of administration. He tries to incorporate different perspectives, noting that he can’t stand the “cheesy martyr stories” seen onscreen in films like Dangerous Minds. His take, he says with a laugh, is more like Glengarry Glen Ross and Welcome Back, Kotter combined. 

Another dark comedy, Reunion by Gregory Moss, opens July 18. A graduate of Brown’s MFA in Dramatic Writing, Moss also performed as an actor in the Playwrights Rep back in ’07. He found the seeds of the idea for Reunion in a Nathaniel Hawthorne story about wasting second chances. In the play, Moss further examines themes of growing up, manhood and male bonding, the unreliability of memory and the need to make amends. “There’s a bunch of contemporary plays that show ‘men behaving badly.’ I wanted to investigate that form, and, to some extent, subvert it,” he explains. “The characters – three men in the their late 30s who have gotten together to attend their 20th high school reunion – are all negotiating with their past selves, either clinging to, or running away from, what they were as kids.”

Director Kenneth Prestininzi, who also serves as co-artistic director and apprentice
company director of the Playwrights Rep this season, thinks audiences will identify with the rollercoaster ride of emotions that Reunion’s characters take. As an adult, you may distance yourself from the raw vulnerability of adolescent highs and lows but the depths of those old feelings hold a certain attraction. A reunion offers a risky chance to dive back in. As Prestininzi puts it, “Are you going to throw your equilibrium off again? Is it worth it to feel the intensity of the emotions that you felt in high school, when you were so alive and your relationships were the most important thing?”

Next comes Timeshare, a farce about family by Brown alum Rachel Caris Love (opening July 25). Love reveals that she’s obsessed with family dynamics (“Not just my own family: everyone’s family.”) and cites Alan Ayckbourn, Woody Allen and her dad as comic influences. Her story takes place over the course of a weekend in a remote vacation house. With too many people in too small a space, nothing goes as planned. She reveals, “The play, like all farce really, is built for speed: very little time to breathe or recover. Writing it, I felt like I was playing with dominos, trying to set them up just so, such that when you tapped one you’d threaten to topple the whole lot.”

For Love, a highlight of the Playwrights Rep process is working with director Lowry Marshall. During the isolated time Love spent writing Timeshare, Marshall’s feedback was key. As Love recalls, “So I’m in rural Ohio (where I know exactly one other person) and I’ve got these crazy characters banging about in my head and I’m just churning out material and there are days it’s exhilarating and others when it’s kind of lonesome. But then I’d have a marathon phone call with Lowry and I would leave feeling a tremendous amount of support. And that’s just priceless – to have someone in your corner – someone who is approaching your work with intensity, pushing you and asking lots of great questions.”

Marshall also directed Love’s summer ’08 solo show You’re Eating God (Painting/ Eating), and reports that it was a huge hit. Recognizing Love’s comedic talent, Marshall wanted to give her former student a chance to return to Brown and develop a full-length play. She calls the results wacky, way-out, and one of the funniest plays she’s ever read. Directing Timeshare marks Marshall’s last turn in Playwrights Rep for a while, as next season she leaves artistic direction of the program in Kenneth Prestininzi’s capable hands. She anticipates seeing her grandchildren and traveling more during the summers, and looks forward to watching the Playwrights Rep succeed under Prestininzi’s leadership. As she says with characteristic enthusiasm, “I know he’s going to help it continue to grow it in ways that I would never have thought of.”