By Sevan Kaloustian Greene, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
Every year, since 2009, the Public Theater’s EWG has been invited to bring writers to spend a week at Vineyard Arts Project on Martha's Vineyard. Thanks to incredible generosity of Ashley Melone, who founded and is the artistic director of Vineyard Arts Project, the writers spend 7 days in what could only be described as an artists’ compound (with none of the gulag implications) creating and revising whatever play(s) that strike their fancy. It’s where this blog post is being written as I look out through French doors to a pastoral scene of writers sitting around a table, faces buried in laptops, backgrounded by trees, trees, and trees. It is quite easy to get lost on the grounds or on one of the floors or basements, but that's part of the magic of being here surrounded by birds chirping, bunnies romping, and clear skies where you can actually see the stars at night. It's like Narnia for playwrights.
What’s extraordinarily special about Vineyard Arts Project is that it brings together artists and companies from other disciplines as well. The sickeningly talented guys from PigPen are here this week, as well as amazing playwrights Bekah Brunstetter and Lauren Whitehead – all of whom are a part of the New Writers. New Plays residency. Last year, the mesmerizing dancers of Keigwin + Company shared the week, leaping and turning in one of the four massive studios that are built into the two houses. We got to sit in on their rehearsals and watch their end-of-the-week performance and they joined us in a couple of our page-sharing sessions. Vineyard Arts Project is a chance for artists from all areas to spend time creating work and communing (and commiserating) with one another. And a bonus for us is getting to spend a week with Liz Frankel, the Public Theater Literary Manager and EWG facilitator, who takes a week away from her desk to devote her time and energies to us.
I was fortunate enough to come last year and lucky to come back this year (residency is offered to current EWGers members first with open slots going to alumni picked via lottery). I loved the experience so much, not only the sharing of work, laughter, and frustrations, but also the freedom to create whatever I wanted to without any pressures to produce any work. I could lay out on the lawn in the sun for the entire week if I wanted to. But that would defeat the purpose of being here. And being here magically inspires you to want to create your best work. Or to take that problem play and make it amazing (or at the very least better).
While each class of the EWG in and of itself is always diverse, what is especially incredible about this summer’s random selection at Vineyard Arts Project is that it includes 2 South Asians, 1 Middle Eastern, 1 half South Asian/ half Middle Eastern, 3 Latinos, 2 African Americans, 1 Native American, and 1 Caucasian collectively representing each year of the EWG from the inaugural to the current group. This is diversity at its best in a time when artists of color are underrepresented and ignored in the theatre (tokenism not withstanding). It makes me feel so good to spend time with all these incredibly talented and diverse people, some of whom I have only known by name or met a handful of times. I am walking away with new friends and artists-in-crime. I have laughed copious amounts, made others laugh, and shared in nightly communal meals where conversations have ranged from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the Native American presence in pre-colonialized Manhattan.
We are pushing and driving each other to want to do our best work, partially because we want to put our best foot forward (especially with EWGers who were not in our group) and partially because we want one other to succeed so damn much in an industry where jockeying and elbow-shoving can get in the way of making true connections with other artists. We get to be open and honest about our fears and dreams; our frustrations about feeling less-than; our impulsive decisions to leave the business completely; our confessions of not having any self-worth as artists. And it’s ok – we’re detoxing. We’re giving ourselves one more shot. We’re taking another leap because that is what we do as artists when we get beat down – we take a moment to check in with one another and realize we’re not alone and that we don’t have to be alone.
Having recently sat in the audience of February House at the Public, I wondered what it must have been like to spend that much time living with other artists, all that creative energy and all those egos rubbing up against one another, and all the work that could be generated from it. I realized that I was getting to experience my own version of that up here (albeit without all the tension and hedonism). We’re sitting on decks drinking beers and smoking cigarettes talking about life. We’re asking one another to read this page or that monologue to make sure we’re on the right track. We’re excited about one another’s projects and asking to read the whole script when it’s done.
We are getting to be artists free of any other annoyances or disturbances. We are getting to be a community with a shared intention and understanding of learning, growing, and creating to not only make ourselves grow as artists, but also to change the face of the American stage and to broaden the scope of storytelling.
Sevan Greene is hoping to finish his new play at Vineyard Arts Project. Well...start and finish the new play. As soon as he takes a quick break to frolic in the grass and feed the bunnies.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.