Young playwrights and innovative work at Vineyard Arts Project

PigPen Theatre Company returns to New Writers New Plays.
Photo courtesy of Vineyard Arts Project

PigPen Theatre Company returns to New Writers New Plays.

For the last three weeks, two playwrights and a playwriting/performing troupe have been on the Island working on new material as part of the Vineyard Arts Project’s third annual New Writers/New Plays residencies.

All of the writers, though young, are seasoned professionals. In two cases, their work is destined for New York City stages. And judging by the history of their predecessors’ work, any or all of these new plays, which will be seen here as readings for the first time starting Thursday, July 12, may very well find success in the theater world at large.

The writers of the plays developed and presented in the first residency in 2009 have gone on to attract a good deal of attention as fully realized productions. Ayed Akhtar’s play “Disgraced” premiered at the American Theater Center in Chicago in January and will be staged at Lincoln Center this fall. “Witness Uganda,” written by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, was awarded a $50,000 grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a staged reading at Playwrights Horizon. The writer of the 2009 residencies’ third play, Matthew Wilkas, just joined the cast of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway.

The current New Writers/New Plays resident playwrights may have some big shoes to fill, but they are certainly no slouches themselves. Bekah Brunstetter is working on her play, “A Long and Happy Life,” as a commission from Naked Angels, the prestigious New York theater company. Four of Ms. Brunstetter’s previous plays have been produced by, among others, New York’s Atlantic Theater and the Steppenwolf Garage in Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the New York Innovative Theater Award for Best New Play. The 30-year-old North Carolina native also writes for a number of MTV shows.

Ms. Brunstetter describes her newest play variously as a dramedy and as a contemporary Greek tragedy, and says, “It’s about a woman who recently moved from Manhattan to Bed Stuy [Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn]. Up to this point she’s led a charmed life. She witnesses a very tragic accident and she’s trying to resolve how to live with fear and anxiety and embrace the randomness of the world.”

The work employs an innovative technique of having a group of step dancers serve as the modern equivalent of a Greek chorus. The step dancers, as well as all of the actors for the residency readings, are primarily equity actors from New York City. The actors and directors arrived on the Island two weeks ago to work with the playwrights.

Ms. Brunstetter finds the process of developing the work with actors and directors on board very helpful. This is not her first residency. “I’ve been fortunate enough to go to many of them,” she said. “This was absolutely my favorite.”

She said that she has been working on her latest play for about three years and that it was in its seventh or eighth draft when she got to the Vineyard. “I was really angry with the play and after a week here — being able to spend time with it — I fell back in love with it,” she said. “I made some massive changes that I didn’t know were in me. I feel better about the play than I ever have.”

The members of the Pig Pen Theater troupe have been here for the entire residency. They are a collaborative unit of young men who write, act, sing, play music, and provide puppetry for their multi-dimensional original shows. The Pig Pen writers/performers have been producing work on the Vineyard for the past three years. They were originally recruited to present one of their works here while they were drama students at Carnegie Mellon University by Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, whose former organization ArtFarm has now merged with Vineyard Arts Project.

Last year, ArtFarm hosted a production of PigPen’s “The Old Man and the Old Moon” at The Yard. At that time, the lively contemporary folk tale was a one hour theatrical piece. Since then the group, which won top honor for a play at the New York City International Fringe Festival two years in a row and have earned enthusiastic praise from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, have been commissioned to extend it to a full length piece. They will present the new version here for the first time this weekend.

Lauren Whitehead, 28, is an accomplished spoken word poet who is working on “Stunning, Still,” her first play. “This is the first time I’ve written something that wasn’t meant to be performed by me and wasn’t meant to be performed in three minutes,” she said. The work came to life through a writing exercise for a class she took at Columbia University, where she is working towards a degree in Dramaturgy.

Unlike Ms. Brunstetter, Ms. Whitehead arrived at the residency with an unfinished work. “Really what I had was a bunch of disconnected scenes,” she said.

Working with her actors has given her new perspective, Ms. Whitehead said. “I have really smart actors, and I love building the play with them. They have something at stake from inside the play.”

Ms. Whitehead describes the antagonist of her play as, “A woman in an interracial relationship trying to decide if and how she can move forward with the relationship.” Ms. Whitehead uses an interesting device to further the plot — a character who she describes as a “shape shifter who can change his age, his race, his gender, and the narrative of the story at will.” The action jumps around in time and place, the playwright noted.

Though last year’s selections were linked by a similarity of theme, the common denominator in this year’s selections is the use of innovative techniques. “Every single one of these plays is breaking the boundary of straight theater,” Ms. Ditchfield says. “Every one breaks that fourth wall, all in a different way. I’m excited to see them all together.”

The series’ co-founders, Ms. Ditchfield and Ashley Melone, received around 35 applications – with accompanying play submissions – for residencies this year. Included in this number were referrals from established theaters in New York, Chicago, and Boston. Luckily the two women, who fully merged their organizations this year, are pretty much always in agreement during the selection process. “We tend to fall in love with the same things,” Ms. Melone says.

“It’s really exciting for me to have a combination of esteemed writers and someone working on her first play ever,” Ms. Melone said of this year’s selections. “I love that we’re able to work with a range of people all trying to create new work.”

New Writers New Plays, July 12–14, Vineyard Arts Project, Edgartown. Readings at 1, 4, 7 pm each day. Pay what you can. For more information and schedule, visit vineyardartsproject.org.