Vineyard Arts Project presents New Writers, New Plays

Four young playwrights have been on the Vineyard now for a month completing new work, which will be presented this weekend at the Vineyard Arts Project’s campus on Main Street in Edgartown. This is the second year for the New Writers. New Plays., a residency that is a collaborative effort between ArtFarm Enterprises and Vineyard Arts Project and, although last year’s inaugural program featured relatively unknown writers, this year’s assemblage is not so much up and coming, as here and rising — fast.

Tanya Saracho, 34, has had her plays produced at the Goodman Theater and Steppenwolf, two of the most prestigious institutions in theater-centric Chicago. Ms. Saracho is the co-founder and former artistic director of Teatro Luna: Chicago’s All Latina Theatre. Winner of a number of awards for her work in the theater, Ms. Saracho was named Best New Playwright of 2010 by Chicago Magazine.

The play that Ms. Saracho has been working on here is the second in a trilogy that was commissioned by the Goodman Theater. Ms. Saracho was born in Mexico and raised in a border town in Texas. Her experiences inform much of her work. “The Border Trilogy” explores life on the border between Texas and Mexico.

Though playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is only 26 years old, he has already achieved global success. He has seen his work performed at the Public Theater, New York Theater Workshop, PS122, Soho Rep, New Dramatists, The Matrix Theater in Los Angeles, CompanyOne in Boston, Theater Bielefeld in Germany, and the National Theater in London. For the past two-and-a-half years he has been working in Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship. Both he and Ms. Saracho have received very favorable press in The New York Times among other places.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ play “Appropriate” is a drama about a family descending on a dead patriarch’s estate to divide it up. While at the deceased’s home they stumble upon a mystery. “It explores race in this country in a smart interesting way,” Brooke Hardman, ArtFarm founder and director, says. “There are some twists in it that I found to be surprising. It makes me so happy when I read a script and it surprises me the way his did.”

“Pyramidica” is the second play for actor/musician/writer Lucas Papaelias who has already established himself as both as an actor and composer. As an actor he has appeared on Broadway and at a number of off-Broadway productions and in regional theaters. His film and television credits include “School of Rock” and “Law and Order.” Mr. Papaelias has composed or contributed to music for shows at the Public Theater, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and the Broadway production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Kevin Kline, in which he was featured.

Mr. Papaelias (who goes by LpfunK as a writer) has co-written “Pyramidica: Songs of Freedom” with his longtime friend Deborah Smith, an established songwriter, poet, and instrumentalist. For “Pyramidica,” which is a rock musical, Ms. Smith contributed as the lyricist, while Mr. Papaelias wrote the music, though he emphasizes that it was a true collaboration with Ms. Smith adding her input on all levels.

“Pyramidica” explores different notions of freedom. Mr. Papaelias, who performed in one of last year’s new plays, as well as in a production at the Vineyard Playhouse, describes the 23-song rock musical: “It’s a story told through the perspective of a pyramid scheme’s free orientation. Their deal is that they’ve created an algorithm that can multiply how much freedom you have. It’s pimping out freedom.”

The action in the seven-character play shifts around quite a bit. At one point the scene changes to ancient Egypt and centers around the building of the Great Sphinx.

After the first two weeks of the month-long residency, the playwrights were joined by their individual directors and casts. Says Ms. Hardman, “I cannot believe the talent we have assembled. We’ve got Broadway veterans, award-winning actors and recent graduates who are among the most exciting talent I’ve come across.”

She is also thrilled with the playwrights that she has attracted in only the second year of the initiative. Thirty-five people applied for the residency this year. Ashley Melone, founder and artistic director of Vineyard Arts Project, notes that she and Ms. Hardman were in total agreement in the selection process. “There were certain ones that just stood out — certain plays that we knew should be developed and should be performed and have a life.”

The four playwrights arrived on-Island in varying degrees of progress. “Pyramidica” was complete as a first draft, but it has evolved, and much of the music was composed while the co-writers were here. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins had completed two acts of his three-act play and had a rough draft of the third when he arrived. He notes that “Appropriate” is a play that he had been working on for about two years and, “was kind of stuck inside of.” He found it very helpful to have a cast to work with.

Ms. Saracho had nothing but an idea when she got here. However, Ms. Hardman was familiar with her unique writing process since the two of them worked together when both were students at Boston University’s School of Theater Arts. The group that Ms. Saracho has gathered together for her residency is made up of actors that she has worked with before and a director who she has always wanted to work with.

Of the trio of plays Ms. Hardman says, “We feel that they were all exploring, in-depth, current issues in America.” Of Ms. Saracho she says, “I think her voice is really, really important not only to the Latino community, but the country in general.” She adds, “Branden explores race issues in America. Issues that some may consider dormant or solved. ‘Pyramidica’ is a way of exploring the financial crisis.”

The 30-plus people involved in the residency have been living and working together in the Vineyard Arts Project compound on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, along with the members of PigPen Theater, who are rehearsing a show that they will be performing later this month. Although the work is intense, the group has had a chance to explore the Island a bit, enjoy family dinners, and hold impromptu jam sessions. Last Saturday night a fundraising event featured short performances by the PigPen members and musician/actors from “Pyramidica.”

Says Ms. Melone, “It’s so exciting once everyone arrives and we meet all these writers and directors in person. It’s a very thrilling time to see these shows that we read on paper come to life.”

Adds Ms. Hardman, “I don’t think I could be doing this anywhere but on Martha’s Vineyard because the community had been so generous and supportive.”

Play Readings, Thursday–Saturday, July 7–9, 1, 4, & 7 pm, Vineyard Arts Project, Edgartown. 508-413-2104; vineyardartsproject.org.