by Jared Strange
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
For most Americans, the mere mention of “the DMV” summons nightmares of bureaucratic deadlock. For residents of the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area such as myself, it means something like home—though living a few Metro stops away from the seat of the federal government means deadlock is never far from mind. Apart from residing in the shadow of the Capitol, our DMV is characterized by a curiously disconnected sense of place. For my part, much of that has to do with the University of Maryland, my institutional home in a DC pseudo-suburb otherwise known for housing the local IKEA. Some of it has to do with the peculiarities of the District, which has outgrown its exclusively federal designation and stubbornly progressed through stages of self-rule, though not to the point where it is always clear who is in charge.
As in most places, the pandemic affected this DMV in unique ways, and as in most places, theatre artists responded in turn. One of the signature issues artists faced was how to meet people where they are—a troublesome prospect in the DMV even before the advent of the pandemic. In the autumn of 2019, a group of artists came together at the urging of playwrights Jennifer Barclay and Tim J. Lord to address that challenge by leveraging the area’s significant but disparate new play development faculties. The new collective, later to be known as District Dramatists, gathered under auspicious signs at the REACH, a sparkling new space at the Kennedy Center. Optimism ran high, though the challenge of serving artists through decentralized leadership without overburdening volunteers quickly proved an obstacle. The arrival of lockdown, coupled with the furlough of our Kennedy Center advocates, brought that obstacle into especially stark relief, and ended our experiment prematurely. The dissolution of District Dramatists foreshadowed aspects of new play development, and our very artform itself, that would demand consideration over the coming years: the dynamics of space in the time of social distancing and the material needs of artists in a time of social reckoning.
Unsurprisingly, the opportunities and limitations of digital space were a significant factor in navigating the first two years of the pandemic. The University of Maryland became a trailblazer in this regard when it transitioned an in-person production of Qui Nguyen’s D&D-centric play She Kills Monsters to the Zoom room under the guidance of media specialist and digital champion Jared Mezzocchi and co-director Lisa Nathans. The move quickly established and tested the rules of Zoom theatre. Over time, many artists adopted similar models, producing everything from daring new works such as FakeFriends’ Circle Jerk to small companies such as Theatre in Quarantine. The DMV also became a hive for new play development programming that sought to recreate the rehearsal space in the Zoom room, often with mixed results. In my own developmental work with Rorschach Theatre Company and UMD’s Fearless New Play Festival, I found myself contending with both the actual expectations of the Zoom rehearsal space and the imagined expectations of the “real” rehearsal space. Crucially, the shift online did suggest positive adaptations for “post-COVID” development, which has so far included making readings on Zoom, solely or in a hybrid format, something like the norm, and allowing artists to participate in initial developmental work from afar. To what degree these accessible arrangements will become standard remains to be seen.
While online spaces should continue to bolster new play development through mixed modes of production, other projects speak to the enduring power of the physical. After having its original season stymied, Rorschach Theatre Company, under the leadership of co-artistic directors Randy Baker and Jenny McConnell Frederick, joined with associate artists to develop an immersive, site-specific, mail-in project titled Psychogeographies. Now in its third iteration, Psychogeographies tells epic stories of science-fiction and fantasy through boxes of letters and artifacts mailed out to subscribers monthly. Subscribers are then invited to explore the contents of each box at a corresponding location in the DMV. Each story beat draws inspiration from the location, evoking both its geographical particulars and the power dynamics that have shaped and reshaped that geography over time. The story concludes with a live, immersive performance at a venue in DC, echoing Rorschach’s long-running commitment to exploring the way space informs narrative and experience.
While criss-crossing the DMV via bike, train, and car for the project’s second installment, Chemical Exile, I became especially mindful of how embracing location as the primary connective thread of a narrative resonates both with the histories of each site and the renewed appreciation for public spaces that emerged during the early days of the pandemic, when there was hardly anywhere else to go. It helped that Chemical Exile, co-developed with associate artists Kylos Brannon, Doug Robinson, Shayla Roland, and Jonelle Walker, centered on a scientist who returns to the United States to find her material world an eerie mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The resulting sense of disorientation chimed with my efforts to grasp the region’s unique terrain and refined my attention to the ways many residents—particularly Black residents, like the play’s heroine—have had to grapple with the forces of gentrification transforming their homes into places that are strange and even hostile. As I alluded in my review of the piece for Washington City Paper, one of the challenges of “bingeing” Chemical Exile in one day—which, to be very clear, is not what Rorschach recommends—is that it made my transition from a self-driven, exploratory process into a delimited immersive performance especially jarring. Even in a space as beautifully rendered by Rorschach’s cadre of set designers (Nadir Bey, Sarah Beth Hall, and Grace Trudeau), I found myself longing for the freedom to explore the tension between the real world and the play’s world on my own. Thankfully, even as the District returns to something like the old “normal,” Baker and Frederick remain committed to producing new iterations of the project and introducing new audiences to the area’s psychogeography.
For all the technological innovations and spatial rearrangements that the pandemic has forced new playmakers to adopt, one of the most significant pushes has been to empower audience members and theatre-makers who are often excluded from the head table. For my part, that push is most evident in education. When the pandemic set in, my chief side-gig at The National Theatre in DC shifted online, leading to an expansive website project aimed at documenting the institution’s history, a significant portion of which has been taken up by hosting pre-Broadway tryouts for future classics such as Fiddler on the Roof and M. Butterfly, and integrating them with DC-area high school curricula. More significant, however, was my time as a teaching artist with Young Playwrights’ Theater, an organization that specializes in in-school and after-school playwriting classes for students of all ages, including adults. One of my assignments was at Chelsea School, a small campus stuffed into a commercial building near the Mall at Prince George’s Plaza in Hyattsville, Maryland. The school specializes in helping students with language and learning difficulties, many of whom benefit from a suite of Google tools that include screen-readers and other language-processing technologies. In recognition of their needs, Young Playwrights’ Theater brought me on with license to riff on their usual curricula alongside my Chelsea co-teacher, who just so happened to be the school’s director.
I initially took my freedom to experiment as an exciting opportunity to decenter the individual writing in our course and adopt something closer to a devised or writers’ room model. Instead of beginning with Freytag’s pyramid, I urged the students to build worlds based on the stories that moved them, taking note of everything from themes to characters to settings. Instead of drafting dialogue, I encouraged them to fill a Google Slides document with notes, images, ideas, or anything that would evoke what their collective imagination conjured. I wanted to prove that they already knew what made a good story and that we could create one of our own if we worked together. The actual writing would come later in the form of individual monologues set in the world of their design. As it happened, the plan for what we would produce changed over the course of the semester to eventually become a play that was conceived by the group, drafted by me, and presented semi-privately in the classroom. Nearly all those changes were programmatically driven; for example, the initial plan to rotate in new groups was discarded, meaning I effectively had to extend my curriculum by half a semester.
Even with that shift in mind, progress was slow-going and sometimes frustrating, though that had more to do with larger issues than with the students. The two groups, one made up of middle-school girls and one of the high-school boys, were like any random sample of teenagers: active and engaged somedays, moody and distant others; some of them eager to bring the text to their feet, others petrified of making a fool of themselves. It was only later that I learned their teachers had brought me and a litany of other arts partners into their classrooms because the effects of pandemic pivots, staff departures, and the usual pressures of adolescent life had simply worn everybody out. My role as a teaching artist had less to do with generating new scripts or even helping the students advance their language facilities (a task I was not suited for on my own) and more to do with helping them release some of the steam that had built up during the past two years of their young lives spent tossing and turning on the waves of unrest. What I had treated as a pedagogical sandbox was really a chance to engage with one of the core values of storytelling: imagining other worlds that help us handle this one. Bearing that in mind, I think we can be happy with the results, even if I still came away with a long list of things to try differently next time. For example, I would take greater initiative to educate myself about pedagogical approaches suited to the environment, rather than referring solely to my already over-worked co-teacher. I also would not be so quick to shove the building blocks of dramatic action and character development to the back; if anything, understanding that a story depends much more on what a character does than what they say could be especially helpful to students for whom language is often a barrier.
While my experience at Chelsea was immensely informative, it was also a prime reminder that meeting people where they are often has less to do with “producing” art than connecting with someone else’s reality. In that sense, it highlighted all the ways in which space can, and should, shape new play development. The screen-reading technology that helps some students process text is like the Zoom technology that kept professional read-throughs together: it’s a way to help bridge the gap of access and expand the reach of our room. Chelsea itself, shunted into an office floor above a clinic and a gym, illustrates how young people who are already on the fringes can be pushed even further from the center by physical and institutional architecture. My very presence, summoned by an exhausted administration’s cry for help, proves that no matter the method, what so often dictates the development of new stories is what the participants bring with them. Art does not arise out of a vacuum: it arises out of human beings meeting each other where they are. For all the ways that our new technologies and our old streets have changed new play development, that fact is effectively the same.