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Three Plays to Put on Your Summerworks Radar

Date: May 17, 2018

Clubbed Thumb's annual theatre festival is an incubator for up-and-coming playwrights


You probably won't recognize the names Trish Harnetiaux, Angela Hanks and Will Arbery, but if you're a lover of offbeat new plays, commit them to memory. They're the three emerging dramatists featured in this year's Summerworks, Clubbed Thumb's annual theatre festival that's known for having given many famous playwrights their first big break.

Summerworks is an ambitious undertaking: Over a month and a half, the fest presents three markedly different world-premiere plays at the Wild Project in the East Village. Each show gets 10 days of full-fledged performances with sets, costumes and seasoned actors. There's less than a week between productions, which means the minute one show ends, a new set of artists is banging at the stage door, eager to load in.

Yet there seems to be a method to this madness. Over the past two-plus decades, Summerworks has introduced New York audiences to the work of Gina Gionfriddo, Sarah Ruhl, Jordan Harrison and Lisa D'Amour, all of whom were later nominated for Pulitzers. And some plays that debuted at the fest went on to bigger things, such as Jaclyn Backhaus' Men on Boats, which Clubbed Thumb later coproduced at Playwrights Horizons.

"I think people should come to Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks because they're guaranteed to see something that is fresh and alive and hot off the press," says Harnetiaux, whose play Tin Cat Shoes kicks off the fest this week. "I think it's a chance for audiences to be part of something from the ground level."

So if you're interested in hearing new voices, consider putting these three Summerfest shows on your calendar. They're inexpensive ($25 per ticket -- even less if you buy via TDF's $9 Off-Off Broadway program), and just may afford you future bragging rights. Here's what the playwrights have to say about their shows:

Tin Cat Shoes by Trish Harnetiaux (May 19-29)

Plot: New shoe store staffer Gemma is just settling in when the boss arrives and takes all the employees on a mandatory camping trip. Stuff happens (including a bear attack) and "it's kind of unbelievable how far these characters go in 85 minutes, we cover a lot of ground," teases Harnetiaux.

"Ever since the election in 2016, we've been forced to accept outrageous new circumstances," she says. "How do we survive that? That was very much a leaping off point for this story about following a group of coworkers as they have an odyssey of a day and how they adapt to their circumstances."

What will audiences be thinking about after the show?
"I want people to reflect on their own ability to adapt and what that's meant, and how big an issue can be that never gets addressed again," she says. "I'm also interested in what's at the intersection of kindness and survival."

Describe your play in three words:
"Unpredictable, unsettling, funny."


Wilder Gone by Angela Hanks (June 4-14)

Plot: It's 1921 in Dallas, Texas and three African-American women have different aspirations. Thalia wants to build a house, Mabel hopes to be a preacher and 12-year-old Peanut Brittle just wants to get through puberty.

Inspiration: "It is loosely inspired by the life of my paternal great grandmother," says Hanks about her ancestor, who owned a home in Dallas in the 1920s, a rarity for African-American women of that era. "What interested me was her determination in having that house built. There are few stories from that time with women of color being leaders and pursuing their own ambition."

What will audiences be thinking about after the show?
"My hope is there's a lot to take away from this play surrounding the themes of ambition, love, loss and survival," she says. Wilder Gone also touches on "the politics of skin tone and class."

Describe your play in three words:
"Poignant, funny, understated (at times)."


Plano by Will Arbery (June 20-30)

Three sisters aren't having a very good go of it: two are trapped in unstable marriages and the third is in chronic physical pain.

Arbery has seven sisters and he wanted to create a "love letter" to them. While the play was sparked by one sister's divorce, "I found that the real joy of the piece came from having my sisters be with each other and talk to each other," he says. In the show, the siblings bond as they navigate "three very different male presences and three very different types of oppression, ranging from the very literal, to the very spiritual, to the incomprehensible."

What will audiences be thinking about after the show?
"I love plays that linger in your mind long after you've seen them, something that you're trying to puzzle out months after," says Arbery. "So I would love for the audience to feel a little bit haunted. Beyond that, because this play is such an act of love for these women, I would love for people to feel seen. This play came out of all those years of absorbing and I just hope the seeing and the listening that I'm doing feels resonant."

Describe your play in three words:
"Haunted, rageful, loving."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Tin Cat Shoes. Tickets for the other two Summerworks shows may become available during their respective runs. Go here to browse our current offers.

Follow Diep Tran at @DiepThought. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: The cast of Men on Boats. Photo by Elke Young.