A Playwright Learns to Emerge
Wasserstein Prize-winner Marisa Wegrzyn adjusts to her increasing notoriety
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
How does your career change when other people take it as seriously as you do? Now that she’s been dubbed an “emerging playwright,” meaning an early-career writer whose plays are regularly workshopped or produced, Marisa Wegrzyn is finding out.
If nothing else, her notoriety will give her more time to write. Tonight, Wegrzyn receives the third annual Wasserstein Prize, a $25,000 award given to an outstanding script by a young woman at the beginning of her career. Established in memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the prize---which is funded by the Educational Foundation of America and administered by Theatre Development Fund---gives writers more exposure and literally buys them time to practice their craft.
Thanks to the cash influx, Wegrzyn, who’s based in Chicago, won’t need to make ends meet for several months. “Most of the time as a playwright, there’s a whole lot of anxiety on top of making the art,” she says. “There’s the anxiety of making a living.”
That anxiety can cripple an artistic career. Wegrzyn says, “I’m torn about having something to fall back on, because it can keep you from doing what you want.”
That’s why she’s philosophical about losing a recent day job. “I was feeling pretty comfortable in the job, and I don’t know if I would have left if I hadn’t gotten fired,” she explains. “It was actually really liberating.”
Wegrzyn will spend her extra free time honing several plays, some of which have been commissioned by prominent companies like Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Connecticut’s Yale Repertory Theatre. The new scripts will likely share the mordant wit and skewed reality of Hickordickory, which she submitted for the Wasserstein Prize. (Her winning play focuses on “mortal clocks”—literal timepieces that count down the seconds of a person’s life.)
Few playwrights become successful enough to get commissioned, and Wegrzyn says the experience has directly affected her writing. “When you start, you’re writing just to write, but now I’m thinking which kind of stage the play will work best on,” she says. “I’m very conscious of which audience will see a play and who’s going to do it. Like for the Steppenwolf commission, I’m thinking about their ensemble and the plays they’d like to do. A lot of them are older than me, and I don’t want to give them a play about twentysomethings and their love lives in the city.”
Commissions have also challenged her sense of space. Yale Rep’s main stage, for instance, is in a large, converted cathedral, and it brings specific demands to any production. “I had an ‘oh s---‘ moment when I saw Yale Rep’s main space, because the idea I was kicking around did not feel like it would suit that grand church,” Wegrzyn says. “Many of my plays to this point, I think, play best in a smaller, more intimate setting. It will be a challenge for me to fill that space and have a story play to the back row.”
She’s braced by the opportunity, however. “I can still use 100 percent of my imagination and filter it through whatever mesh of limitations there are,” she says. “That will help me make the strongest choices in the writing.”
Wegrzyn wants to glean permanent lessons from writing for a particular stage. “I’ve been fortunate to be commissioned by theatres, and I can’t not think about the room the play will be in,” she says. “That thinking, I hope, becomes one of the many components of the creative process, along with that nebulous idea of ‘creative inspiration.’”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor