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Seven Writers Walk into a Room…

Center Theatre Group’s L.A. Writers’ Workshop Commits to the New Canon of American Theatre

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The 2015/16 L.A. Writers' Workshop Culmination held at The Music Center Annex.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.
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(L-R) Tom Jacobson, Martín Zimmerman Allison Moore, Janine Nabers, and Sylvan Oswald, at the 2015/16 L.A. Writers' Workshop Culmination.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Seventy-five playwrights have participated in the Center Theatre Group L.A. Writers’ Workshop since 2004. From the established wordsmith to the promising wunderkind, playwrights at all stages in their careers have spent a year with us getting support in the critical early stages of a new work’s development. There are only four requirements for participation:

  1. The playwright must be based in Los Angeles.
  2. The playwright must be invited.
  3. The playwright must commit to working on a new play.
  4. The playwright must attend meetings at our offices throughout the year.

One might expect this workshop to function as a talent farm—a place for Center Theatre Group to reap new plays for productions on our stages—but the truth is that Center Theatre Group lays no claim on the plays developed through the Workshop. In fact, many writers use the Workshop to complete commissions for other theatres around L.A. and the country.

Why? The goal of the Workshop is to "connect with the next great generation of master playwrights," said Center Theatre Group Literary Manager Joy Meads. "We are living in a Golden Age of playwriting. This is a uniquely gifted and dynamic generation of writers and they are creating a new American drama for a new American audience. Based on the sheer number of exceptional writers living here now, I believe that this time in Los Angeles will be seen as the site of a great period of artistic vitality. If we want to be a part of that as an organization, then we have a responsibility to invest in these writers and their work."

The seven participating playwrights in the 2015/16 Season created work on subjects ranging from epigenetics and the effects of trauma across generations to the relationship between hair and sexuality. Over the course of eight months, they got input from experts (including a UCLA psychiatrist and a scholar of restorative justice at Loyola Marymount University), met regularly with one another, and conferred with Center Theatre Group staff about their projects.

There is nothing more exciting than meeting with these artists and seeing their work progress from initial readings to full productions on our stages or even elsewhere.

Miles Benickes, Center Theatre Group Artists and Educators Forum Founder and Board of Directors Member

The goal is to come away from the process with a solid first draft, but finishing a draft is not a requirement. "This is a very genuine experience. It never shuts you down," said playwright Tom Jacobson. “It feels good and safe and free for a playwright to complete their work—however they need to."

Added Meads, "The playwrights have to be free to make mistakes—to go down paths that may not directly lead to their finished play. It’s hard work but good work." The reward for that work is a culminating event in which the playwrights gather at The Music Center Annex with a troupe of professional actors to hear their words spoken out loud, often for the first time.

"There is nothing more exciting than meeting with these artists and seeing their work progress from initial readings to full productions on our stages or even elsewhere," said Center Theatre Group Artists and Educators Forum Founder and Board of Directors Member Miles Benickes. "Programs like this ensure that theatre remains relevant, vibrant, and a vial part of our communal experience."

We are living in a Golden Age of playwriting. This is a uniquely gifted and dynamic generation of writers and they are creating a new American drama for a new American audience.

Joy Meads, Center Theatre Group Literary Manager

Playwright Sylvan Oswald emphasized the importance of the initial readings. "In a regular play, you can be working for two years and you go a little crazy without having people to fill it out and remind you that it exists," he said. "But to have other people come in there and fill those characters out with humanity and charm is just a huge relief."

While the readings are closed to the public, the ultimate results of the L.A. Writers’ Workshop are not. In 2015 alone, eight plays from the Workshop were produced at theatres around the country, including South Coast Repertory in Orange County and Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"We are proud of these writers. We want to champion these writers," said Meads. "I think playwright Ken Weitzman said it best: ‘This is the moment when we are all whispering over the seedling, saying grow.’"

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