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Program focuses on innovation for plays

The new Playwright Residency Program will have Kristoffer Diaz write a new play for the 2016-17 season.

Edward Sobel, head of playwriting and directing for Temple’s theater department, wants to see new plays taking the spotlight.

“I’ll be the first person to say that ‘Hamlet’ can speak to anybody at anytime, anywhere and anyplace … but it’s also a 400-year-old play,” said Sobel.

His desire for innovation in American theater is one of the motivating factors behind his development of the theater department’s new Playwright Residency Program, which is financially supported by alumnus David G. Steele. The program’s first award recipient is Kristoffer Diaz, playwright and author of the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

In the next few months, the New York-based Diaz will visit Temple several times to get to know the department, interact with students and sit in on classes. He will then write a play “with Temple’s acting population in mind,” Sobel said, that will be produced for the 2016-17 season.

The goal of the program is to change certain aspects of what is often customary for most professional theater companies. While playwrights typically expect a significant amount of time between when they write the play and when the play gets produced, Sobel’s program will shorten the timeline so the playwright remains in tune with their original vision.

Sobel said the process of plays “being workshopped to death” could take a minimum of two years, and even then, it is not a surprise if the play doesn’t get produced at all. Temple’s program is guaranteeing the playwright’s commissioned play will happen.

The program will stress consistent contact and interaction between the playwright and the actors, in this case the undergraduate and graduate students, to get the best results.

Sobel’s time as the director of new play development at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, an ensemble-based company, convinced him of the importance of maintaining close relationships between the playwright and the play company.

“Here, the writer is getting to know the culture in our department a little bit and also getting to know potentially some of the actors that are going to be in it,” he said. “My observation was that in all kinds of artistic relationships, when you have that sort of repeating or better knowledge of your collaborators, the better the work is.”

As an academic institution, Temple’s large casting size of six MFA actors and more than 200 undergraduates will also enable playwrights to tackle larger ideas and events for their play, which is often inhibited by the fact that companies casting six or seven people is considered large by today’s standards.

The program was not just created to help playwrights—it was planned to help students see what it’s like working closely with a playwright and give them the opportunity to be part of the development of a new play.

“From our point of view, this allows our students to have a play being written by a playwright of real stature, that is essentially being written for them and for them to have the opportunity to originate those roles,” Sobel said.

In addition to Diaz fitting in with the department’s mission of encouraging students to be “citizen artists,” Sobel feels innovation and experimentation for the modern American play has been stifled. He hopes this program will be able to change the perceptions that new plays are doomed to fail.

“You have to do plays that speak to [audiences] in a very immediate and vibrant, vital way,” he said. “Older plays can do that, but in order for the art form to keep growing, you need to be able to explore, experiment and find new voices.”

Albert Hong can be reached at albert.hong@temple.edu.

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