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Two You Should Know

Date: Aug 31, 2007


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Those who look at Broadway and wonder where all the new American plays are need only glance a bit Off-Broadway to find a vibrant crop of fresh stage works. The coming season at major Off-Broadway theatres is especially ripe with world premieres by new and emerging playwrights.

Two of the season's most promising offerings are currently in previews: Lucy Thurber's Scarcity at the Atlantic Theatre Company, and Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights' Horizons. Both are family dramas of sorts by female playwrights, and both are being given star-studded stagings that represent the writers' highest-level New York productions to date.

"The whole season at Playwrights Horizons this year is filled with daring choices and fresh voices--there's nothing staid about it," says Fodor, whose first play, Hannah and Martin, about a fateful meeting between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, premiered in 2004. "I think maybe I'm the riskiest prospect of the bunch. It's only my second play."

Second play or not, Fodor (no relation to the travel-guide brand, she says with a tinge of mock-regret) had no trouble attracting talent: 100 Saints is directed by the seasoned Ethan McSweeny and stars Janel Moloney (West Wing) and Lois Smith (Grapes of Wrath, The Trip to Bountiful). A play less about religion than about the persistence of human longing, 100 Saints took some time to make it to the Playwrights' Horizons stage. Fodor has learned that it was worth the wait.

"I found out from the artistic director, Tim Sanford, that Playwrights Horizons is very careful to choose playwrights, not just plays," Fodor explains. "The first thing they do when they read a play that they like is to read everything by that playwright. One reason they sat on 100 Saints for a while is that I didn't have a body of work. For a while, they were thinking, 'We like the play; we'll keep an eye on this lady.' Then they decided to just make the leap and produce me."

Lucy Thurber has more plays under her belt than Fodor, and indeed Scarcity is her second production of the year: An acclaimed mounting of Stay ran at Off-Off-Broadway's Rattlestick Theatre in May. But, as with Fodor, the Atlantic production of Scarcity--one of the earliest of eight plays Thurber has written--has been steeping for a while.

"It took so long for this play to get done, and I'm actually glad about that," says Thurber, a self-described "scholarship kid" who knows firsthand the working-class world she writes about. In Scarcity, this world is brought to life by director Jackson Gay and a cast that includes Kristen Johnston (Third Rock From the Sun, Aunt Dan & Lemon), Michael Weiss (The Pretender, Jeffrey) and Miriam Shor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

The wait to bring Scarcity to the stage is partly due to the usual risks of producing new work. But Thurber admits that attitude might also have had something to do with it.

"I spent a good part of my young adulthood wanting to bear witness to the overreaching culture of poverty in America," says Thurber, who also works as a teaching artist in TDF's Residency Arts Project. "It took me a while to figure out how to bridge the gap between a relatively affluent New York audience and the people I'm writing about. I didn't understand how to actually have a dialogue with the audience. I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder."

What she came to realize, she said, that while "theatre is a rich man's game" in terms of the economics of producing, it's also "about spending a couple of hours being human together." Her plays, she's come to realize, are intended to "lead the audience through how complicated class in America is, how complicated it is to want things you can't have, how complicated family is. The theatre can be a shared experience where the story and the audience meet."

Fodor also rests her play on a sense of common experience--in her case, among characters that at first may seem very different, and definitely in conflict.

"A lot of what makes us human is that we long for things that we can't possibly reach," Fodor says. "The characters in the play all long for very different things, and that makes it hard for them to understand each other and coexist. But the play also posits that there's something similar about these characters--that although they long for different things, even mutually exclusive things, they have a lot in common."

One thing Fodor and Thurber have in common: pivotal early encounters that determined their playwriting future. In Fodor's case, it was a friendly meeting with an actress, a fellow graduate of Oberlin, that pointed this business journalist and sometime creative writer to the stage.

"My friend Melissa Friedman and I were talking about Hannah Arendt, and how that was a part she would love to play," Fodor recalls. "She had tried to convince another friend of hers, a playwright, to write it for her. I was sitting on the subway coming home from that lunch and thinking, 'I could write that play.' "

Fodor then had a pleasant revelation: "I'm better at playwriting than I am at fiction writing. Something that felt forced and convoluted in fiction writing got unlocked, and the words just poured out. There was a lot of struggle when I wrote fiction; it was painful. There's something playful about writing for the theatre."

Thurber had already decided on a playwriting career when she had the privilege of a mentorly chat with the late, great August Wilson.

"I think every playwright around my generation has an August Wilson story, because he affected so many people and was so generous to young playwrights," Thurber begins. "I was a kid up at the O'Neill [Playwrights Center] when they did Seven Guitars, and I started talking to him about my struggles as a writer. He asked me, 'Well, what are you trying to write about?' I said, 'I write about poor white trash.' And he stopped cold and said, 'Excuse me? Do you think they're trash? Do you think you're trash?' Without even thinking about it, I had internalized a sense that the people in my plays, and that I, had less value."

That important hurdle overcome, Wilson offered specific advice. "He told me, 'Every world has its heroes. Who are the heroes where you grew up?' I told him, 'People who could be chased by the cops and not get caught; people who could drink a case of beer and still stand up.' He also said, 'People must tell stories about these characters. Start there.' It wasn't long after then that I started writing my play Where We're Born, and started to find my own voice."

Her voice, and Fodor's, are now sounding out loud and clear, and New York audiences have the chance to get in on the beginning of what promises to be a provocative season-long conversation.

For tickets to 100 Saints You Should Know, go here. For tickets to Scarcity, go here. A look at the Atlantic Theatre Company's 2007-2008 season is here; Playwrights Hor