Karen Zacarias, right, smiles as Artistic Director Molly Smith makes a point during rehearsals. She and four other playwrights are participating in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)


Playwright sits at a
kitchen table in pink
T-shirt and jeans, rewriting the second act
of a play that will be produced in two weeks
at a major Washington theater. Playwright is in her early 40s, attractive and accomplished.
Variety calls her a “writer of comedic skill.” A clear vase sits on the table,
filled with plump, pink roses the playwright has bought herself. She opens her laptop.

Playwright Karen Zacarías is wrestling with her play’s final scene. The ending needs one more “aha moment,” she says. The main character must break down and come to the realization that she has ruined things for the other characters. Right now, Zacarías is not sure her character has realized that.

This is a moment that requires high-wire crafting. That’s why people who write plays are called playwrights. A play is wrought.

Unlike other forms of literature, plays need a stage to make their words live. Audiences can be unforgiving. Success or failure is very public. For the playwright, this means failure can feel exponentially more devastating, and success beyond magnificent.

Zacarías, 42, who was born in Mexico to a family of poets, is rewriting her comedy “The Book Club Play.” Later, she will deliver these new lines to the actors who will perform the play through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, under the direction of Molly Smith. The posters are already hung in the windows of the striking new Southwest D.C. theater complex, and the pressure is on: “The Book Club Play” will be the first work produced under Arena’s American Voices New Play Institute, launched in July 2009 with a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The institute, which Smith, Arena’s artistic director, says provides tools for writers to do their best work, operates as a “think tank” for the development of new American plays.

It includes fellowships to train young producers, and a course called Theater 101 gives audience members an intimate look at play production. But its playwright-in-residence program is generating the most buzz. Five emerging and established playwrights — Lisa Kron, Katori Hall, Charles Randolph-Wright, Amy Freed and Zacarías — have been selected to receive, for three years, a $40,000 annual salary, health benefits and production seed money that they control to revisit older works or write new ones.

Arena promises to produce at least one play by each of the playwrights, who are invited to live and work in a Southwest townhouse that Arena has rented three blocks from the theater. The house has become a setting to create, hang out and talk about drama.

When Freed got the news that she had been selected for the paid residency, “I was kind of in a state of shock. The reality is playwrights make no money. I said, ‘Do you realize what that means for a writer, that you are given space and time to do work without 80 percent of the energy going to “How am I going to get the bills paid”?’ ”

After the call, “my husband and I looked at each other, and we both knew my life had changed,” says Freed, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose play, “You, Nero,” is set to open at Arena on Nov. 25.

“For the next three years, I know I am a working playwright,” she says. “It’s making me cry talking about it. I have had a play in production almost every year for 17 years; still, at the end of that, every year there is the question, ‘Can I live to fight another day?’ ”

The residency “cast a backward glow over what I have been doing for two decades. I have been in some embattled corners. This thing I love, that I am about, will have another year of existence.”

SCENE TWO — Flash to Mexico City, a scene of a small girl growing up in a house full of poetry-lovers.

Zacarías saved her allowance to buy her first typewriter at age 6. Her mother, who is Danish and a nurse, and her father, who is Mexican and an epidemiologist, remember that she titled her first two poems “I Wake Up With Love” and “I Am Sick and Tired of the Moon.”

Although her famous movie-director grandfather, Miguel Zacarías, wrote poetry, Karen Zacarías resisted the idea of becoming an artist. “In some ways, I grew up thinking that being an artist meant you were selfish or self-involved or irresponsible.”

Zacarías says she loved her grandfather, “but we were a little scared of him as kids. I think he was a little selfish. . . . He died at 101 years, one month and one day. How poetic is that?”

When Karen was 10, her father, Fernando Zacarías, received a scholarship to Harvard University. The family, which includes a younger sister, moved to Brookline, Mass., and unexpectedly decided to stay in the United States. Eventually, Fernando Zacarías became head of the AIDS program for the Pan American Health Organization in D.C.

Karen Zacarías graduated from Stanford University with a degree in international relations in 1991. Her first job was working in Latin American policy at a think tank. She lived frugally and in three years paid off all her student loans. When she was 22, she began studying playwriting at night at Georgetown University.

A few years later, Zacarías decided to obtain a master’s in playwriting, but she got cold feet when she considered the debt. Another student in her class at Georgetown made her an astounding offer: Patricia Smith, who is now a playwright and runs a nonprofit, told Zacarías that she would pay for her graduate school if she promised to use her talent to help others in some way.

So after getting her master’s from Boston University in 1995, Zacarías returned to Washington and promptly founded the Young Playwrights’ Theater, a nonprofit program that teaches high school students playwriting. Last year, it received a youth program award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

These days Zacarías lives with her lawyer husband, Rett Snotherly, and their three children, ages 9, 7 and 5, in Adams Morgan, but she often retreats to the quiet of the townhouse in Southwest to write. Before arriving in its kitchen on a recent morning to stare at her computer screen, she made a trip to the grocery store to buy food for her children’s lunches.

An adjunct professor of playwriting at Georgetown, Zacarías says she is grateful for the material and artistic autonomy that the residency provides. “Most programs would say, ‘Start writing a new play.’ . . . I felt what I needed was time to deepen and get them to the point where they are done.”

Her works include “Legacy of Light”; an adaptation of a novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”; and “Mariela in the Desert.” Her play “Sins of Sor Juana” won a Helen Hayes Award in 2000 for outstanding new play. Her works have been produced at Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center and Round House Theatre, where “The Book Club Play” debuted in 2008. The comedy revolves around a Type A woman who has a seemingly perfect marriage and career, until her book club becomes the subject of a documentary film and her life threatens to unravel.

Later that year, “The Book Club Play” was produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. It was then that Zacarías decided to rewrite it.

“It did well for both theaters,” she says. “But there was part of me that knew I had something deeper to say.”

SCENE THREE Lunchtime on a Wednesday inside the playwrights’ townhouse. On the kitchen counter might be all a writer needs: sharpened pencils, a blender, a can of Hormel corned beef and a bottle of Yellow Tail wine. The walls are bare.

In the living room, Arena Stage’s associate artistic director, David Dower, and Polly Carl, dramaturge and director of the American Voices New Play Institute, are meeting with young producers who have plopped into overstuffed chairs. The conversations about playwriting flow into the kitchen, where Zacarías is immersed in more cuts after a week of rehearsals.

She taps on her pink laptop. Right now, she is considering whether to break up the marriage of her main character, Ana, who is described in the billing as living “in a letter-perfect world with an adoring husband, perfect job and her greatest passion: Book Club.”

Zacarías is confident that the structure of her play is sound. But the ending needs something. “In a play, if you feel the ending needs a lot of work,” she says, “actually something needs to be resolved earlier.”

All night she had wrestled with what to write. About 3 a.m., the answer came. She woke up, raced downstairs, found a pen and scribbled on the back of an old script. Now she reads aloud what she wrote: Popular books are delicious, flavorful condiments, but to call “Twilight” literature is like calling catsup a vegetable. These condiments do not make a meal. Eating solely this, and we will be malnourished.

Zacarías ponders a bit. “But it is too beautiful,” she says. “People don’t talk that way.” She flips pages in her pink notebook.

Eventually, she boils the lines down to this: You cannot be serious! “Twilight” is not literature any more than ketchup is a vegetable.

Later today, she will deliver these lines to the actors, always a delicate task. “You are dealing with everybody’s imagination,” Zacarías says. “You cut a line, and they will say, ‘I thought I had a kitty cat.’ ”

Zacarías understands her play more deeply when she sees it performed. “A play is visually cooked in front of an audience,” says her dramaturge, Jocelyn Clarke, a former theater critic who lives in Ireland. “In the course of rehearsals, a play grows. You get other voices and bodies inhabiting the characters. That raises all sorts of interesting questions, and you make changes in response to what is happening in the room.”

Clarke keeps reminding Zacarías why she rewrote this play. “I call him a play therapist,” she says. “They look at your play and let the play speak to them and tell you what they hear. A dramaturge might say, ‘You say that is what you want, but I see the play is about this.’ ”

As she talks, she puts on a gray sweatshirt, packs her backpack and leaves for the three-block walk to daily rehearsals, where the play is being tested.

SCENE FOUR — Cut to rehearsals. The copies of the script are still warm, the last words written 15 minutes ago. The director gathers actors in a rehearsal room draped with blue velvet curtains. The set is quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

Zacarías sits next to director Molly Smith, wearing a crisp white shirt. A kind of “super editor” for the playwrights, Smith is meticulous in her approach to the script and her directions to the ensemble cast. Each actor has “depth of ability,” Smith has said, enough talent to carry a one-person show. As the actors read, Smith flips through the script. “Don’t break up that line,” she tells an actor. The retorts of the other characters must be swift. “Rhythmically,” she says, “it has to boom, boom, boom!”

The actors repeat the lines, this time with a precise quickness. Smith approves.

“Let’s take it from the line, ‘Honey, please wipe the table with that napkin.’ When you played this before, something happened different physically. There needs to be physical tension between you.”

The actors take a 20-minute break.

Smith says her job is to help Zacarías’s play become more of what it is. “This is a gorgeous, sensible play,” Smith said earlier. “It is a comedy with teeth. A lot is operating beneath it.”

She listens for what is said and what is unsaid. “I worry a scene. . . . Is she saying what you want her to say? Why is she bringing this up at this moment? I ask a lot of questions because I think that is also the way we learn as human beings. When someone asks us questions, then we learn what is inside us.”

SCENE FIVE — Two nights before previews start. The play “is up” onstage in the Kogod Cradle, an intimate space for new works. T he production staff is adjusting lighting and sound. The actors are practicing the timing of their costume changes between scenes. An electric-blue screen burns behind a set that includes two elegant sofas, a coffee table and a rug.

Zacarías waits several rows back from the stage. She is both nervous and excited. “After so many years of working on it, I feel confident about it,” she says.

She exhales. “This theater is gorgeous. Most new plays are done in little, scroungy black boxes,” she says, but in here, “there is nowhere to hide. The play is exposed. It feels both protected and naked at the same time. ”

An actor onstage asks for a “little liquid in the wine glass.”

Smith calls for an action break.

“Tonight, we will put it all together,” Smith tells them. “But it feels good.”

A voice calls out: “Six-thirty is the half-hour call. Seven o’clock is the down beat.”

The actors leave the stage.

In the lobby, Zacarías lies back on a red suede bench. She is wearing a black baby-doll shirt and jeans and a new bob haircut. She is tense. “The idea of eating a whole bag of Cheetos, comfort food, sounds really good right now.”

In two days, she will cut her play loose. “At some point,” she says, “you have to let go and let the baby soar.”

SCENE SIX — Cut to previews. The play zips by. The audience laughs at the right jokes. When the final act is over, the cast takes a bow.

The crowd files out, chattering. “That was great,” a woman in a blue coat tells a man in black. A group of women lingers, recounting a scene in which characters in the book club talked about Zora Neale Hurston.

Zacarías, who did not leave the theater during intermission, stands in the back, listening to the departing crowd. Her agent, Earl Graham, who has come tonight from New York, shakes her hand.

Her dramaturge, Clarke, who has just flown in from Ireland, tells her, “It is a huge success in the sense it is all working.”

Nick Olcott, who directed the play three years ago, stage-whispers: “It makes perfect sense” for one character, and not another, “to have a nervous breakdown. It was perfect! You made smart choices in the rewrites.”

This is the change she slipped into the play to make the ending more effective.

“Plays are never finished,” Olcott tells her. “They are only abandoned.”

Zacarías plans to make eight more pages of cuts by Sunday’s matinee. Now, the first act is one hour, eight minutes long. By Sunday, it will be cut to one hour — precisely.

During the play, Zacarías did not watch the audience. Instead, she “felt” the room.

There came a point when she heard people talking back to the play. “There is a point when the audience loses itself in a play, when they forget they are watching characters and believe they are watching people. That is a good sign,” she says. “It was a good night.”