James Ijames says that when he writes a play, he does so for his community.
Ijames, along with five other emerging Philadelphia theater artists, is launching a new collective committed to producing plays entirely according to the writer’s vision.
“We are freeing ourselves to do the most dangerous work that we’d like,” Ijames said.
Orbiter 3 is aiming to produce six new plays over three years – each one in agreement with the artistic vision of the playwright.
It’s a risky way to produce new work, Ijames said, enabled by a commitment to serve as one another’s production team.
He said that risk is one reason new plays by local playwrights aren’t produced more often in Philadelphia.
“If you’re producing a playwright that’s new, that’s a risk,” Ijames said. “It could be controversial.”
Members of Orbiter 3 have seen an increase in demand for local plays. The work of playwrights Michael Hollinger and Jacqueline Goldfinger have grown Philadelphia’s reputation nationally. Development programs like PlayPenn and The Foundry bring new plays closer to production. Through public readings, audiences get a taste of what local writers have to offer.
Because of that groundwork, Ijames said, “audiences are interested in plays from people in their community.”
Orbiter 3’s members are early in their writing careers. But they already have their fingerprints on productions by Applied Mechanics, Flashpoint, InterAct, Azuka and others. The writers include Emily Acker, Emma Goidel, Mary Tuomanen, Douglas Williams and Ijames himself. Maura Krause serves as the artistic director.
Acker, Goidel and Williams collaborated this year for a Neighborhood Fringe production. It was during this process that they decided to join forces as Orbiter 3.
Williams, a 2010 film graduate, said the city’s playwrights are determined to present their work.
“There is a great DIY sense in Philadelphia,” he said. “Do it in a house. Or a garage.”
But Williams wants Philadelphia to be more than a city where playwrights innovate.
He said he envisions, “a town where playwrights stay and can function.”
“To create art, you need actors and directors and designers,” Williams said. “If everything else should be local, playwrights should, too.”
“There is power in numbers,” he added. He said he is excited to be in a group of playwrights that are also actors, directors and filmmakers. While one writer takes a turn as lead artist, the others will “make sure the theater is sustainable,” doing whatever it takes to bring the writer’s vision to life and ensure the author of the work is fairly compensated.
Orbiter 3 replicates an experiment that’s also bolstering playwrights in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. It started with New York City’s 13P, which ran from 2003-12 before disbanding.
“They left behind the complete model of how they did it,” Williams said, describing the open-source documentation 13P published – budgets, schedules and stories. 13P wanted other groups to carry on the torch, but few have.
“We decided that Philadelphia deserved to have a similar group,” Williams said.
Ijames, who holds an acting MFA from Temple, said he remembers feeling ecstatic to find out there was energy behind a 13P-style collective in Philadelphia.
“I get an email while I was backstage,” Ijames said. “I was like ‘Yes, yes! Someone’s thinking about this in this way.’”
In Summer 2014, Flashpoint Theater Company produced Ijames’ play “The Most Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” which he’d developed at PlayPenn the previous summer, with a reading at the Wilma Theatre.
Despite an excited response to the script regionally and nationally, Ijames had trouble finding a company willing to stage a full production.
Casting that required mostly African American actors who sing and move well and the story about Martha Washington being put on trial for her crimes as a slaveholder were factors “fighting against the play,” Ijames said.
It took a leap of faith from Thom Weaver at Flashpoint to produce a play that ended up receiving critical acclaim, sold out houses and earned five Barrymore Award nominations.
Ijames and Williams said they see Orbiter 3 as an opportunity to create that kind of radical, provocative work – limited only by their imaginations. Doing so could expand the sense of what’s possible in Philadelphia’s theater community, they said.
“We could get theaters to take those kinds of risks, say, ‘I’m going to take the gamble on this play,’ and put the full weight of the company behind it,” Ijames said.
Writing locally means the playwrights know their audience’s milieu. They know the skills of the actors, designers and directors who will bring their work to life.
Six productions down the road, Orbiter 3 plans to disband in 2018.
“When I look to other cultures, art-making doesn’t deplete where the art is made, it replenishes where the art is made,” Ijames said. “Orbiter 3 will leave Philadelphia better than how we found it.”
Neah Monteiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org