Included among this year’s 2016 Helen Hayes Awards nominations are 11 world premiere plays and musicals in the original and adapted categories. For this month’s The Wright Stuff, writer and actor Sara Dabney Tisdale spoke with Arena Stage’s Robert Barry Fleming and the Kennedy Center’s Kim Peter Kovac about the process of bringing four of those dynamic new works to the stage.
When it came to creating dynamite original work for Washington area stages, the recently announced 2016 Helen Hayes nominees for outstanding new and adapted plays channeled a shared talent: Letting the voices of gifted playwrights—and the power of their stories—take the lead.
“As a producer, I always describe my role as finding good people and helping them a bit and then mostly staying out of their way and letting them work,” says Kim Peter Kovac, the Director of Programming for Theater for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center. Two productions under Kovac’s leadership, Mockingbird (adapted by Julie Jensen from Kathryn Erskine’s National Book Award-winning story) and Darius & Twig (adapted by Caleen Sinnette Jennings from the novel by Walter Dean Myers) garnered nominations in the best adaptation category this year.
Kovac says the driving force behind developing adapted work for kids and teenagers is bringing to life vibrant characters whose stories ring true to young ears. “So many times for me it’s the voice of the leading character,” Kovac says, pointing to Mockingbird’s Caitlin, an 11-year-old girl on the autism spectrum who grapples with challenges at school and at home; and Darius & Twig’s Darius, a teenage boy living in Harlem whose talent for writing and bold artistic aspirations belie a troubled family life.
For Mockingbird in particular, the key was allowing a compelling story to foster audience connection with, and understanding of, a special protagonist. “We didn’t look for a book about the autism spectrum, we looked for a good story,” Kovac says. “And this is a wonderful, dynamite story.” Drawing on the expertise of the autism community, the center’s VSA accessibility office, and the personal experiences of the production’s artistic team, Mockingbird resonated in new ways for the Kennedy Center. “I often say that theater is a greenhouse for empathy, and this was one of the best examples of that in a long time,” Kovac says. “So many young people in the audience were able for the first time to empathize with someone on the spectrum.”
When taking on Darius & Twig, the Kennedy Center’s previous two adaptations of Myers books and the company’s strong relationship with the author’s estate led to a natural pairing. When Kovac pitched the idea of an adaptation to DC playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings, “there was sort of an immediately emotional connection for her” because her sons had grown up reading Myers’s books. Kovac had found the right person to tell the right story—one he describes as “unflinching” and “offering a whole alternative kind of look at young people.” For Kovac, a high point occurred when Myers’s widow and son attended the show. “They were both quite moved … they could hear his voice.”
Robert Barry Fleming, Director of Artistic Programming at Arena Stage, echoes Kovac’s belief in nurturing unique perspectives. “It’s always about how can we help the vision of this very special, very specific voice be heard,” Fleming says. In the case of Arena resident playwright Katori Hall’s Blood Quilt, empowering the artist meant being open to changes—including a significant plot alteration as the production neared opening.
“Early in rehearsal Katori said, you know I think I know how to make this better. I think after all the readings, all the workshops that we’ve done, it’s become clear to me in this moment exactly where we need to be,” Fleming recalls. The re-write—a change in the distribution of the family inheritance that is the crux of the play—was challenging for many departments. But ultimately, following the playwright’s instincts reaped rewards. “There was something fundamental,” Fleming says. “She knew if she addressed [that] it would make for not just a slightly better but a significantly better play.”
During Arena’s premiere of Dear Evan Hansen, the hit Levenson-Pasek-Paul musical now headed to New York’s Second Stage Theatre, the development process was nonstop. “Benj and Justin, they occupied virtually every area of this theater … writing in conference rooms and cafés, in rehearsal rooms, in the hallways and the voms,” Fleming says. The impact of the show on audiences was immediate and audible. “After our first preview I came into the lobby and … there was this roar of teenage screaming and I was like oh my god, we’re doing that show. It’s like Ben is one of the Beatles.” The fervor, Fleming says, spoke to a deeper cross-generational impact on Arena audiences, revealing new ways in which a traditional theatrical production could “feel that vibrant for that age group.”
For Fleming, Arena’s nominations—and all of this year’s nominees for original and adapted work—speak to an explosion of growth in the quality of art being produced in the area. “I think the real takeaway for us is that we have seen DC theater mature and grow into the kind of world-class market that we’ve always known it could be,” Fleming says. “It’s starting to be something that’s not a secret across the country.”
Check out the complete list of Helen Hayes Award nominees - including 11 for world premiere plays and musicals – and mark your calendars for the Helen Hayes Award celebration on Monday, May 23!