The Lark, an off-Broadway company, recently celebrated its 19th Playwrights’ Week, featuring readings of seven new plays, where the audience shared their written comments directly with the playwrights. The plays explored such diverse topics as post-apocalyptic New York City, superhero fantasies and the family life of a paraplegic young girl.
“A playwright doesn’t work like a novelist or a poet,” said Saviana Stanescu, a Romanian-born playwright, Lark employee and faculty member at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “We are part of a team, in theater, so it’s very hard, if not impossible, to work by yourself.”
The Lark was founded in 1994 as a non-profit group that performed both Shakespeare and new plays. In 1997, co-founder and artistic director John Clinton Eisner shifted the focus to present only new works, through simple staged readings that support the playwrights’ creative process. Admission is always free, meaning that the theater is dependent on federal and private grants, such as those from the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as tax-deductible donations.
Started in the spring of 1995, Playwrights’ Week is the Lark’s oldest program. Last week, the festival gave seven playwrights ten rehearsal hours to develop their plays for a public reading, in front of approximately 50 to 80 audience members. Because the reading is treated as an extension of the rehearsal process, and not a performance, each audience member got a green feedback form to fill out.
To audience members like John Cheng, who had arrived in New York the day before coming to the Lark, the experience was completely new. “I didn’t know what to expect,” said Cheng, who moved to the city for a marketing job. “I mean, I was kind of thinking this would be some kind of dark garage or something, but it’s not. It’s really great.”
Stanescu explained the importance of the workshop process and added, “The Lark is a safe haven for playwrights. The stakes are a little lower. You can take risks. It’s not like you’re leading to a production [where] you’ll get reviewed.”
Briandaniel Oglesby, author of “Halfway, Nebraska,” said that for him, development at a center like the Lark is the only possible next step after he finishes writing. “It kind of hit that point where the things that needed to be fixed with this play were not things that were going to get resolved on my own,” he said.
The Lark Literary Wing, a group of 35 to 40 volunteer readers, received over 900 submissions this year, which were narrowed down over the course of nine months to 20 to 25 finalists, and then reduced to the seven playwrights.
“We look for things like a clarity of voice,” said Lloyd Suh, the Lark director of onsite programs and member of the final selection committee, “and [also], quite importantly, plays where writers have very specific ideas on how the resources of the week should be used [and] what they would like to accomplish.”
Playwright Anna Moench wanted to work on something very specific with her play, “Hunger,” which follows a Chinese couple’s illegal search for an afterlife bride for their recently deceased son. It is meant to be a puppet play, so the Lark allowed her to stage two scenes with puppets to see how they could be used and how an audience would react.
Though many major playwrights have had numerous workshops and readings before their plays go on to full-scale productions, there is some controversy around the process.
“Some playwrights complain that their play is in development forever,” explained Janet Neipris, playwriting professor at NYU Tisch. “What has prompted this is the economy. It is much cheaper to do a reading than to do a full production. Probably one out of 15 [plays] may go on to one production. Rajiv Joseph, who was a student of mine, went to the Lark and that did help him develop a play [“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo“] that went on to a big production [on Broadway], so sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t because there are fewer productions to go around.”
Lauren Gunderson, who wrote the play “This is Denmark” inspired by the parallels in the lives of scientist Tycho Brahe and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, remains nevertheless optimistic about her future as a playwright. “If you look at your job through the lens of money, it looks like you’re failing. But if you look at it through the lens of creativity and participating in the world of ideas and deep meaning, then I’m doing great,” she said.