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Playwrights Take Charge

By: Julia Rosenfeld
Date: Jul 13, 2009


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By Julia Rosenfeld

What happens after a playwright finishes a play? In the current climate of new theatre, a play might spend years in readings and workshops, often with no full productions in sight.

In 2003, 13 mid-career playwrights (including Sarah Ruhl and Young Jean Lee) took matters into their own hands and formed a new theatre company, 13P. Their motto is simple: We don't develop plays. We do them. And they do so with much success. In the past six years, 13P has produced seven plays (most recently Sheila Callaghan's Crawl, Fade to White), and received an Obie Grant in 2005.

13P's next venture is a production of Monstrosity by P#8 Lucy Thurber (her play Scarcity was produced by Atlantic Theater Company with Kristen Johnston in 2007). With a running time of three hours and a cast of almost 40, Monstrosity is not only ambitious, but also epic. Examining the cycles of power and revolutions, Monstrosity is a disturbing retelling of the hero's tale with an unheroic ending.

"I started reading about revolutionaries," says Thurber. "They seemed to always be young, young enough that the idea of mortality, of ones own death, wasn't real yet." She began to read about the Hitler Youth Movement, listening to their songs and watching videos of their marches. The power of these young people was clear. Thurber takes this one step further by having one of the young soldiers start her own revolution.

Director Lear DeBessonet sees similarities between the political climate of Monstrosity and our own. Though written during the Bush years, Monstrosity is not a mirror of our past or current events. "It's very intentional that the world of Monstrosity is not a realistic world," she says. "It's not a literal parallel to the U.S. or any other recognizable place and time. That level of abstraction actually allows it to be much more incisive. But there is a shadow that hangs over the play that I think feels familiar."

Thurber adds, "I began to obsess over how close a society is to fascism at any moment. I wondered about freedom and liberty versus the desire to belong to something greater than yourself. The conflicting desires between the individual and the whole… how feelings of euphoria, of being part of a movement, could lead individuals down a path of destruction."

Each 13P production is run by the playwright at work, who serves as the company's artistic director when their play is produced. This unique system gives the playwright full control and responsibility for their artistic vision and allows them to make choices that might otherwise seem too risky. For example, Monstrosity opens with an army of teenagers marching and singing surrounding the audience, a vision that might not have been realized had Thurber not had as much control.

DeBessonet explains that 13P's leadership approach creates a very specific and supportive artistic atmosphere.

"It's fantastic to truly have a playwright put at the center of the creative process," says DeBessonet. "13P is a company that is run on the fumes of goodwill…everyone involved in this show is here out of a dedication to the mission of 13P and out of a love for Lucy and this play. And that just sets the tone very differently for why people are in the room. It brings a joy and a spirited sense of fun that is really special."

Singing teenage fascists and free lemonade are only a couple reasons not to miss Monstrosity.

Thurber says, "It is live, it is immediate. It is communal. It asks the audience to be part of an experience where we all sit and hopefully are human together."

Learn more about Monstrosity
Julia Rosenfeld