January 4, 2017

New Play Development at McCarter Gets a Big Boost From NEA Grant

Photo by Mitsu Yasukawa

As it pursues its mission to support playwrights, new plays, and the future of the American theater, McCarter Theatre Center’s LAB program will be putting to work a $35,000 grant, announced last month, from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“The future of the American theater rests with the American playwright,” McCarter artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann stated. “We take it as a core mission of this theater to develop and support new works and the playwrights who create them.”

LAB offers readings, workshops, a 10-day artists’ retreat in the spring, commissions and the annual LAB Spotlight Production. It also provides McCarter audiences with a window into the creative process. New works developed in the McCarter LAB have included pieces by Christopher Durang (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike), Danai Gurira (Eclipsed), Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics), Regina Taylor (Crowns), Tarrell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays) and more.

Noura, a new play by Iraqi-American playwright and performer Heather Raffo (9 Parts of Desire), will be featured at the end of this month as a LAB Spotlight Production. Created after years of work in Arab American communities in New York City, where Ms. Raffo discussed A Doll’s House with Middle Eastern women, Noura is “a timely re-imagining” of Ibsen’s play “through the lens of an Iraqi refugee family” and “a passionate exploration of contemporary feminism that reflects the dilemma facing modern America: do we live for each other or for ourselves?”

Spotlight stages small-scale productions, providing a new play with the benefits of a professional cast and design elements, presented in the intimate Berlind Theatre performance studio.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu, in announcing the grant as part of the NEA’s first major round of funding for 2017, stated, “The arts are for all of us, and by supporting organizations such as McCarter Theatre Center the National Endowment for the Arts is providing more opportunities for the public to engage with the arts.”

Ms. Mann added, “I am honored to see McCarter’s new play development work recognized with such a generous grant from the NEA. Over the past 25 years, the McCarter LAB has grown into a year-round program that provides writer-centric development supporting approximately 20-25 projects each year.”

Emphasizing McCarter’s unique way of working with writers by tailoring McCarter’s support to the needs of the particular playwright, Ms. Mann continued, ”Being a writer myself I’m very attuned to how each writer works differently. How you can best support the work of a writer depends on what they need at any given time, and we try to give that to them. It isn’t ‘cookie-cutter’ play development at all.”

And Ms. Mann’s ethos has been echoed by a wide range of playwright participants. “McCarter has given me and other writers the chance to write theater,” said Ken Ludwig (A Comedy of Tenors, Baskerville, adaptations of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap last season and Murder on the Orient Express coming up this season). “We have to have this incubator, this place to experiment, this place to learn what our play is and how best to express it. It’s such a joy to be here.”

Sharyn Rothstein (All the Days) described how McCarter approached her: “’What do you need? You can have it.’ That was the best thing that anyone’s ever said to me. I said, “I think I need three days. I would like to have an audience to hear it. It’s comedy. I need to hear when people are laughing. And they said, ‘Done.’ This is amazing!”