The Inkwell, a D.C. theater incubator, steps onto a larger stage
By Peter Marks,
Like most young dramatists, Jason Gray Platt is a struggling one who holds down a day job to nourish his hopes of watching his work come alive at night. Having obtained a degree from Columbia University’s graduate playwriting program in 2010, and still seeking an agent who’ll do the fishing for him, the 27-year-old casts his scripts out into the world all by himself, waiting for some theater, somewhere, to bite.
It turned out in Platt’s unusual case that a break materialized not from a theater at all, but from an organization in Washington that — without so much as its own office — would help him hone and, ultimately, find a home for a play. As a result, Platt is able to write for himself the happiest of happy endings. Or rather, beginnings: Just this past week at Round House Theatre, preview performances started for Platt’s “Crown of Shadows,” by far the highest-visibility platform that a work of his has received. (The piece, a modern riff on “The Odyssey” and staged by Round House’s artistic director, Blake Robison, has its official opening on Monday.)
The event is a milestone not only for Platt, but also for the Inkwell, a 5-year-old D.C. nonprofit that is trying to shore up some of the gaping holes in the pipeline for new American drama. Plucking Platt’s play from the vast trove of submissions it receives from across the country, the Inkwell provided “Crown of Shadows” a workshop with a professional director and actors, and made the pivotal referral that led to its Round House world premiere. To Platt’s immense pleasure, the Inkwell also put him up in a hotel here while he worked with the showcase team — a perk that made concrete for him his advancement as a writer.
“This is by far the biggest show I’ve ever had,” says Platt, who works in the front office of the Wooster Group, the New York-based performance ensemble. “It’s been overwhelming. It was definitely the first time anyone who didn’t first know my name called me to say they wanted to do my work.”
The premiere is a significant first for the Inkwell, too: It’s the first play to garner a full production by an established troupe after going through the organization’s customized multi-level development process. (Last year, a start-up company in Montgomery County, Doorway Arts Ensemble, staged the Inkwell-nurtured “Tether” by Julie Taiwo Oni.)
Lee Liebeskind, a Washington actor who serves as Inkwell’s producing director, says Round House’s embrace of Platt’s play demonstrates that Inkwell’s catalyzing mission can work. Too many new plays become ensnared in an endless cycle of tryouts, workshop productions and informal readings, without ever reaching a paying audience. The Inkwell, it seems, is in the vanguard of a new theater movement attempting to loosen the logjam and help playwrights figure out how to enter the mainstream.
Looking for fresh voices
Many theaters, especially in Washington, are developing their own methods of locating distinctive new plays. Arena Stage has gone so far as to put playwrights on its payroll for three-year stints; Shakespeare Theatre Company commissions prominent writers, such as David Ives or Robert Pinsky, to adapt classical pieces; Signature Theatre, with grants from New York financier Ted Shen, has been churning out new musicals over the past several years. Woolly Mammoth Theatre has perhaps the longest record of showcasing original plays here, and now, smaller D.C. companies such as Taffety Punk and Forum Theatre are building programs to foster new works, too.
But without significant private-donor or foundation support, in-house play development can remain an item on a wish list for many troupes.
“Round House does not have a literary department, and I can only read so many plays a year,” says Robison, who is leaving the Bethesda company after this season to run Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. “I rely on the endorsement of my colleagues to find scripts.”
The linchpin colleague in this instance was Jessica Burgess, the Inkwell’s artistic director, who had worked as an assistant director for Robison and is a member of his advisory, idea-generating artistic roundtable.
“When I read that play, I thought that this was the perfect fit for Blake,” Burgess says, adding that she lobbied him for a year over “Crown of Shadows.” Robison not only read the play and liked it, but also felt a comfort level, knowing that Burgess’s group was an intellectual backstop.
“I don’t have the money to do half a dozen workshops,” Robison says, “so if the Inkwell can do that for us, that’s great. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship for Round House.”
With a $2,500 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Burgess started the Inkwell, thinking about how “to connect new plays to people who want to produce them.”
She used some of the money to organize a gathering of like-minded theater folk, and over pizza, she said: “Here’s what I want to do. Are you guys with me?”
Out of that brainstorming session evolved the Inkwell team, whose nexus is Burgess and Liebeskind, along with Executive Director Anne M. McCaw and Managing Director Lindsay Haynes Lowder. On the skimpiest of budgets — the organization runs on less than $80,000 a year, Liebeskind says, and most of that comes from private gifts — the group developed its system for finding and evaluating new plays.
“We have an open call for submissions, annually or every 18 months,” Burgess explains. The search for unproduced plays is a national one, and the dozens of volunteers who read and assess the submissions come from across the country, too. “Anyone who wants to read with the Inkwell can,” Burgess says, adding that the group has created a standardized numerical evaluation system covering six categories, including the play’s structure, characters, and language and dialogue. (The orientation session for new play-readers occurs in an hour-long conference call.)
This system is used to winnow down the candidates for additional consideration and eventually, for a deserving handful, full week-long workshop productions. The Inkwell finds a theater or a rehearsal space, hires a production team and invites the writer to Washington to participate. In the current cycle, 330 plays were submitted.
What Burgess and the others look for is not necessarily the next “August: Osage County,” but a voice of promise. “We ask, ‘What does the writer have the potential to write 10 years from now?’ ” she says. “Plays that push the boundaries.”
‘Super-smart and sexy’
One of the plays that did that for the Inkwell was Platt’s. “It’s very him,” Burgess says of “Crown of Shadows,” which tells the story of “The Odyssey” from the point of view of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. “It’s super-smart and sexy and violent and uses language in an original way. I think it’s one of the most gripping plays I’ve read.”
Of course, many of the pieces the Inkwell works on do not get struck by institutional lightning. But another play partly developed via the Inkwell, Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You,” has its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth next season. And for the moment, the Inkwell can experience the vicarious thrill of Platt’s Round House coup.
The playwright himself says he’s amazed at how completely Burgess and her organization have taken to his work. “I think,” he said, “she might have a better understanding of the piece than I do.”
Crown of Shadows
by Jason Gray Platt. Through May 6 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-640-1100