Philly's Homegrown Playwrights Enjoying a High-Profile Boom

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Apr. 11, 2012

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Epic duel: Cyrano (Eric Hissom, left) and De Valvert (Justin Jain) fight it out in the Arden’s production of Michael Hollinger’s Cyrano.

It’s no secret that Philadelphia’s theater scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 15 years. Every season, new companies spring up, led by visionary artistic directors who fill their productions from the area’s huge talent pool. The actors, of course, can’t help but be the most visible of that talent, followed closely by the designers. But right now, it’s a group that often goes unseen, the playwrights, who are booming in both numbers and stature.

This month sees a rare quadruple feat: no fewer than four simultaneous professional productions of plays—Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide, Michael Hollinger’s Cyrano, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Slip/Shot and the collaborative The Golem—all written by homegrown bards. While the shows themselves have little in common, their confluence represents a powerful moment in Philly drama.

The unofficial dean of Philadelphia playwrights and a South Philly resident, Graham is the author of 15 plays spanning several decades. All but two of his plays have had their world premiere here. The Outgoing Tide is one that didn’t, having been commissioned by Chicago’s Northlight Theater for a production starring John Mahoney—but though it opened in the Windy City first, Tide, now playing at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, draws heavily on Graham’s hometown, featuring an elderly South Philly protagonist, Gunner, who’s battling Alzheimer’s.

Gunner isn’t the first blue-collar Philadelphian to figure prominently in one of Graham’s plays—the diehard sports enthusiast we encounter in The Philly Fan is perhaps the most memorable—and the playwright credits the city for heavily influencing his characters. “I want to put the people in my plays in situations that I’m familiar with and give them a voice that I’m familiar with,” he says, adding that he often writes with specific Philadelphia actors in mind. “It’s easier to write comedy for particular actors because you know their mannerisms, voice and timing. And frankly, I think people in Philadelphia are pretty damn funny. We just have a weird view of life that lends itself to comedy.”

Tide, though not a comedy, does have a few surprisingly funny moments considering the seriousness of its topic. It was a huge hit in its Chicago run, capturing that city’s Jefferson Award for best new play and marking the third straight year one of Graham’s works has received a new play award. The previous two were both for Philly premieres: 2009’s Something Intangible and 2010’s Any Given Monday both won Philadelphia’s Barrymore Award.

Graham’s not the only Barrymore winner in the spotlight this season. Playwright Michael Hollinger has taken the award three times in the past, for Red Herring, Opus and last year’s Ghost- Writer, all at the Arden. A resident of Elkins Park and the author of more than a dozen plays, Hollinger is branching out into new territory this year with his adaptation of Cyrano , now running at the Arden. It’s his first translated work, as well as his second collaboration with Arden co-founder Aaron Posner.

In an exciting blend of action and romance, Hollinger retains the panache of Edmond Rostand’s original play Cyrano de Bergerac , but jettisons the archaic language that makes the original and its previous English translations feel weighty and slow. The result is a nimble, compelling play that still features wonderful moments of poetic eloquence.

The Philly Fringe has been one factor in building a local community of up-and-coming playwrights, offering a platform where they can inexpensively launch new work and gauge a live audience’s reaction. The city’s established companies, too—the Arden, InterAct Theatre Company, Philadelphia Theatre Company—have all launched new-play development programs that help build lasting relationships with playwrights both national and local.

A third catalyst is less obvious to those outside the biz: Independent from the theater companies, Philadelphia boasts a professional new-play development organization, PlayPenn, that helps playwrights develop new work at an annual creative conference. Since 2005, PlayPenn has spawned 33 new plays that have been professionally produced in the United States. Eight of those 33 had their world premiere in Philadelphia, and six of them were penned by local dramatists like Jacqueline Goldfinger—whose new play Slip/Shot, developed at PlayPenn, is now making its world premiere in a production from Flashpoint Theatre Company.

Goldfinger moved to Center City a few years ago from San Diego when her biologist husband got a job at Temple University. Slip/Shot is her third full-length play to debut here in the last year, following Azuka Theatre’s production of The Terrible Girls and Gas & Electric Arts’ premiere of Hershel & The Hanukkah Goblins. Slip/Shot, like most of Goldfinger’s work, has a mysterious, Southern-gothic quality: Set in Tallahassee in the early 1960s, it revolves around the accidental shooting of a black man by a white security guard. Tragically relevant in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the play explores how racism—the blatant kind as well as the more insidious, subconscious kind—is passed down from one generation to the next. “In America we’re starting to have more serious conversations about race,” Goldfinger says, “and I’m hoping this play will contribute.”

About one-quarter of all the plays professionally produced in any given season are new works, according to a study conducted by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. This season has been an ambitious one in that regard: The city’s professional companies have already staged 25 world premieres, with more on the way.

One result of this focus on new plays is that Philadelphia’s top playwrights have now gained a national following. Throughout their careers, nearly all of Graham’s and Hollinger’s plays have debuted in Philadelphia. That’s changing now, with Graham’s Tide opening in Chicago and Hollinger’s Cyrano having had its world premiere at D.C.’s Folger Theater (where his collaborator, Aaron Posner, is an artistic associate). While Graham’s next two plays will debut at home—Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown at People’s Light & Theatre Company this summer in Malvern and North of the Boulevard in the fall at Theatre Exile—2013 will see him returning to Chicago with another Northlight commission, a barroom drama titled Stella and Lou.

There are advantages, the playwrights note, to having their plays open in Philadelphia. “I can attend rehearsals easily,” Hollinger says. “I know the acting pool, I know the audiences, and it is really easy to keep my eye on the [production].”

Graham agrees—but adds that convenience and sentiment aren’t everything when it comes to the reality of getting a new play produced. “More of my plays will probably be opening out town in the future. I love Philly, but if other cities are willing to kick out some cash, hey, they get the play.”

Slip/Shot opens April 11 at the Adrienne Theater and runs through May 5. TheOutgoing Tide runs at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre through April 22. Cyrano runs through April 15 at the Arden Theatre Company.

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