The Wright Stuff
WordBRIDGE wants to bring playwrights, theater communities together
Published: June 8, 2011
As playwright and Towson University Assistant Professor David White speaks over the phone from Medfield, you get the impression that he’s trying to switch gears. For two weeks, he’s been in his hometown of Joplin, Mo., helping relatives and friends overwhelmed by the May 22 tornado. Now he’s back in Baltimore, in the final stages of transforming Towson University’s Center for the Arts into a site for the WordBRIDGE contemporary playwrights’ laboratory.
Most of the activities are going to be produced at Towson from June 10-25 and focus on four promising contemporary playwrights, chosen out of a field of 155. Those playwrights will be joined by 51 other theatrical consultants, including, White says, “dramaturgs, directors, actors, designers, visual artists, storytellers, a psychologist, a mathematician, a clown, a musician, and some others too.”
Baltimore has its own share of theater festivals—including the Baltimore Playwrights Festival (BPF) and, more recently, the Friends and Neighbors Theatre Festival at the Strand Theater. But according to White, WordBRIDGE is going to add something new to the mix: a vibrant and collaborative discussion of the works of promising playwrights as they move to the professional stage.
“This is really about bridging a gap between what it is to be a pre-professional playwright and what it is to be a professional,” White says. He should know. Eight years ago, in 2003, WordBRIDGE helped him bridge that gap as a young playwright out of Missouri, by working with him on Ain’t Nothing Quick and Easy. The experience not only encouraged him in his playwriting, but it also prodded an abiding interest in developing strategies for collaboration in theater.
This year marks the 15th anniversary for WordBRIDGE, which traces its origins to Florida’s Eckerd College in 1994 (there were a few years off), and, later, spent several summers at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Now it’s looking for its first summer home in Baltimore, where it is produced by White’s own Generous Company—a group of artists who collaborate to produce work for stage and screen.
For White, WordBRIDGE has an important function to fill. In today’s competitive theater environment, playwrights find themselves focused on individual productions. The downside is that emerging playwrights spend less time than they need to refining their creative process and developing their own voices. As a sprawling, free-form discussion group for writers, WordBRIDGE encourages new writers to do that.
So far, WordBRIDGE has helped a number of promising playwrights cross the bridge to professional careers. Keith Huff, whose work was selected for the 1994 WordBRIDGE lab, made his Broadway premiere in 2009, with A Steady Rain. Lisa D’Amour, who attended WordBRIDGE in 1995, went on to win an OBIE for Nita and Zita in 2003.
Performer and playwright Megan Gogerty was selected as a WordBRIDGE playwright in 2008. She returns this year to the Baltimore laboratory as a dramaturg. In her own experience, she says by phone from Iowa—where she’s preparing a new solo show, titled Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth—playwrights often get isolated from the production process.
“And with most development workshops you get when you’re a playwright, they’re aimed at getting the play into production,” she says. “The theater you’re working at generally is developing the play toward the question, ‘Is this going to be a good fit for my theater?’ There’s always the sense that the people who are helping you are also evaluating you. But the focus [at WordBRIDGE] is on making the play more completely itself.”
In today’s world, determining what makes a staged play “itself” isn’t an easy task. White, after reading through stacks of proposed scripts for WordBRIDGE, acknowledges that, on the stage, the struggle to communicate meaningfully in a high-tech age has become a major human drama: The internet, chatboxes, and even emoticons are making their way onto the stage.
And that’s not a reality that a writer can come to terms with alone in a garret. “It’s one thing for a novelist or a poet to spend a lot of time in their room, but it’s very different for a playwright,” he says. “The success of a play really depends on the medium [of communication]. So we give writers a change to learn about what their play is communicating to audiences, artists, writers, and dramaturgs. And it’s a discussion that has to be free of production pressure.”
This year’s WordBRIDGE Lab focuses in part on several specific works by four writers: Krista Knight (Unhinged: A Silent Opera), Caroline V. McGraw (Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys), Sarah Saltwick (Rabbits), and Katharine Sherman (christopher marlowe’s mystery play). White emphasizes that while there are no “final productions,” the collaborative meetings and discussions are intended for public consumption.
“In addition to building bridges for the playwrights, this is about building links to the Baltimore community,” White says. The public is invited to discussions—with dramaturgs, singers, storytellers, scientists, and writers—on subjects ranging from theater abroad to contemporary storytelling. In the end, he says, WordBRIDGE will do more than facilitate the careers of promising young playwrights.
“People can come and talk and find out what’s involved in creating a work of art,” White says of the festival. “These include talks about what’s happening in theater, in dramaturgy. . . . This is really about helping people bridge the gap between where we are in contemporary theater and where we’re going.”