NEA to Nurture 7 Varied New Plays

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The National Endowment for the Arts has announced the selection of seven plays to be funded as part of its New Play Development Program. The pilot project, which is being administered by Arena Stage, is designed not only to underwrite new works already in progress but also to spot successful collaborations among artists, theaters, communities and other entities that might be used as models.

Selected as NEA Outstanding New American Plays are two works that, with the companies nurturing them, will receive $90,000 each toward further development and full productions:

· Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," told from the point of view of an old tiger caged at the war-ravaged zoo; Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles.

· "The Brother/Sister Plays," a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney; McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. The world premiere of the third play, "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," will be presented with the previous two, one of which ("The Brothers Size") was performed at Studio Theatre in January.

Five works in earlier stages of development will receive $20,000 each, as NEA Distinguished New Play Development Projects:

· "Pastures of Heaven" by Octavio Solis, an adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1932 novel; California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley.

· "Happy End to Everything" by Lloyd Suh, a children's parable about the beauty of being unique that uses techniques of comedy, science fiction and Japanese manga; the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. The piece was begun in partnership with the Ma-Yi Theater Company of New York.

· "Detour/South Bronx" by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine takes place and is performed on a bus tour of the borough; Foundry Theatre in New York.

· "Agnes Under the Big Top: A Fairy Tale" by actress-playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil follows the intersecting lives of immigrants from Bulgaria, India and Liberia trying to adapt to America; Lark Play Development Center in New York.

· "I've Never Been So Happy" by Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechanicals troupe in Austin is the folk-tale-inspired story of a boy who returns to civilization after being dragged off by a mountain lion. The Rude Mechs will workshop the play.

"The applications coming into this program were overwhelming," says Bill O'Brien, director of the NEA's theater and musical theater division. About 200 applications were winnowed down by two panels of playwrights, literary managers, dramaturgs and directors from around the country.

The process confirmed that cultural diversity now permeates new American playwriting, O'Brien says. "Our emerging diverse ethnic voices are really beginning to take center stage. Those plays and applications that happened to be written by people from diverse backgrounds are ones that are winning the most support, strictly because of their artistic accomplishment," he says.

When Arena showcases all seven selected plays in the fall of 2010, associate artistic director David Dower says, the breadth of the plays' points of view will offer audiences "a different way to think about who we are as a country" from just seeing ourselves through "the politics and the news media." For a change, "you can look at what the artists are saying," says Dower, a veteran in the new-play development world and point person on the project for Arena.

As project administrator, Arena can't apply for the new-play funding, but Dower says the role has its benefits: "It's a great way to demonstrate what the future of Arena is as a center of American theater. . . . We're doing all the grunt work and loving it."

Georgia on Her Mind

A layover in Chicago proved serendipitous for actress Natalie Mosco. On the way from her then-home in Australia to the 20-year reunion of the Broadway cast of "Hair" in New York, she caught a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"The experimental nature and the abstraction and the technique -- some of it just overpowered me," she recalls now. Mosco, a watercolorist herself, became obsessed with O'Keeffe's work and life: A farm girl born in 1887, poor and perhaps abused, escapes to follow her passion to paint, meets and falls for a great arbiter of American art, photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, then cuts her own path.

The result is Mosco's "A Brush With Georgia O'Keeffe," which ran off-Broadway last summer and is coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for a single performance Saturday at 3 p.m. (Call 202-633-8490.) The play ties in to the museum's current exhibit, "Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities."

O'Keeffe is played by Mosco; Virginia Roncetti and David Lloyd Walters play a myriad of other people in the artist's life. Mosco says she read all the biographies and O'Keeffe's own 1976 book, and watched the PBS documentary on the artist. "I eventually had to sit down and say . . . Okay, what is my theme? What do I want to say about this woman that nobody else can say?" Her answer, says Mosco, was that for O'Keeffe, "given her time, and the circumstances that she had to confront, this was the best possible journey she could have made."

The play moves back and forth in time, opening with a monologue in which a wry 72-year-old O'Keeffe looks back at her life, as if chatting to tourists who've come to peek at the fabled artist in New Mexico. In the next scene, an O'Keeffe in her 40s talks reluctantly to a psychiatrist about her painter's block.

The creative hurdle, Mosco says, lay in writing a first-person play about a notoriously laconic woman. "My real question was what would get someone who doesn't talk talking? There are only two reasons she would do it -- either to enlarge the artistic vision of people she's speaking with, because that mattered to her . . . and the other is when she lost her own vision, she would talk only as a way to regain it."

Follow Spot

· Naomi Jacobson, an affiliated artist with Arena Stage (and a Woolly Mammoth company member) is one of 11 regional theater actors named a Lunt-Fontanne Fellow. The Ten Chimneys Foundation, named for the Wisconsin summer home of legendary stage couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, is inaugurating the fellowship program, which will include a week-long master class with actress Lynn Redgrave.

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