If ever there were a wall on which I’d want to be the fly, this is it.
The Lab at Plan-B Theatre Company is an incubator for new work by Utah playwrights. Since 2008, these monthly meetings provide opportunities for the nine participating playwrights to receive support and guidance from their peers on their current and future projects. Not to mention, The Lab is the first place producing director Jerry Rapier and managing director Cheryl Cluff look for work for future Plan-B seasons.
UTBA asked each of the nine participating playwrights to share their thoughts about the impact of The Lab on their work. Here are their replies:
“It’s possible to write a play while completely cloistered and without any feedback, but in my experience it’s far less fun and the outcome less good. So writers’ groups have become a drop point on every development path. Plan-B’s Lab, however, has become more: it’s a chance to see into my peers’ mental machinery. A play is a play, but each of us is a radically different architect and mason. The Lab has helped me improve individual projects, but also has helped me improve my own process. I feel especially fortunate to hear how Julie Jensen and Eric Samuelsen hear plays. What they comment on, and what fundamentals they fall back on in their openhearted support, is like a master class in itself.”
“Being involved with The Lab at Plan-B is so many different blessing wrapped up in one. For young writers like myself, it’s imperative to cultivate our voice and talent. You surround yourself with talented people if you wish to aspire to be talented and this group of people/playwrights are certainly that and then some. How do I feel about it? I’m honored, more than honored, and I’m so very grateful that I get to glean bits of knowledge and wisdom from the best in the state.
“My experience thus far with the work that is being done in The Lab has been great. A multitude of different thoughts and ideas for plays run ramped in this atmosphere. This is a group of creators from all walks of life, being able to share their collective experience through their writing is very cool to me. However this is not void of disagreement and opinion. One of the benefits of being able to be there is being able to see a process in which some of the best minds I know grapple over the content and ideas. We challenge each other to ensure that the best, the absolute best can come from what ever project is being worked on. Being the youngest member of the group, I hope to offer a relevant and different perspective. I may not be where I’d like to be in my writing or in my life as of yet, but I do believe that may offer some point of view sometimes that may be of use to the others in some way. This should be something that never goes away: we do things better when we collaborate or at least talk about the work at hand. Truly, as a species, we’ve been able to do things no other animal has specifically because of our ability to work together. This is what The Lab is to me, a very skilled group looking to create great work in order to be a mirror, to show us ourselves so that we may escape or evolve and learn how to be better. I am just happy to be a part of it.”
“In Plan-B’s Lab I always know I’ll get honest, thoughtful feedback about my work — from playwrights who are all better than me (which could be intimidating, except that these people are not just honest and thoughtful, they’re generous and kind). Plus Jerry always recruits top-notch actors to read our work out loud, and nothing beats hearing your words so you can get a sense of what scenes and lines work, and which ones you should run right home and delete.”
“The Lab is comprised of a congenial group of playwrights, who genuinely care about helping one another. That’s amazing and, in my experience, rare. The playwrights in The Lab also come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience. That too is amazing and rare.”
“I was incredibly intimidated the first time I attended a Lab reading. I mean, I was in a room full of some of the best writers working in the state—all willing to share their stuff when it’s so very new and raw.
“I’ve only been part of the Lab for about a year, and everyone has been welcoming and genuine. There was never any reason for me to be nervous—except that it’s easy to think that I don’t belong—but the group is honest and generous in their feedback.
“Probably the most exciting aspect, though, is the work: the plays themselves. Such a variety of style and subject, and read by fine, fine actors. It’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
“I was terrified to be a member of the inaugural Plan-B/Meat & Potato Lab in 2008. Overwhelmingly honored and grateful, but terrified. I considered myself a hack and a fraud, who had no business in that room with those truly talented writers. Several years later as The Lab has evolved I still feel that way, though I have been so edified, inspired and improved by the experience that I keep showing up anyway. The Lab keeps me writing. My Lab-mates make me think and question and try new things. The tone set by the creators has resulted in a truly open, collegial, and creative experience. It doesn’t get better than this.
“When I was first told I would be participating in The Lab [as one of the winners of the Plan-B Theatre grant from The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists], my reaction was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I welcomed the opportunity to learn from my more established colleagues as my first play made its way from page to stage, but I found the collective experience in the room somewhat intimidating.
“After the first few meetings I attended, I learned my anxieties were unfounded. The group was (is) welcoming and supportive, though they don’t pull their punches. The group is honest, dedicated, and professional while remaining grounded and empathetic. I have learned a lot and have gained tremendous insight into my work, both from comments made on it specifically, and by gleaning the comments on the works of others. I’m fortunate and honored to have the collective ears of such a talented and respected group of writers, and I know I’ve only begun to learn what they have to teach.
“Playwriting is a solitary act. In a sense, it’s the only part of theatre that is solitary. I never minded, much. I was comfortably home in the company of my imagined characters. But there comes a time when feedback is not just desirable, but essential.
“I had tried writers’ groups. But I rarely found the responses to my work terribly helpful. So I’d quit, and I think my work suffered for it.
“But the Lab is something else again. Every writer participating is terrific. And the focus is entirely about the play. What works, what doesn’t. And we all share the same agenda. To improve the quality of dramatic writing in the state of Utah. And I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
“Others have said this before, but one amazing thing about the Playwrights’ Lab is the generosity of the people involved. I’ve been in other writing groups, and too often people’s comments are about the story they would tell if they were writing your play. In The Lab, no one tries to re-fashion your play. The comments are about helping you to achieve your vision for the play.
“The other amazing thing is how safe I feel in sharing my work there. I know the Lab folks will criticize, but the criticism is based on a firm foundation of mutual respect, it’s not meant to tear me down but to build me up. (And there’s this unspoken convention that we all start with the positive things before moving on to the problematic parts.) All this has allowed me to take risks with the work I bring to the Lab. Both of my last two projects have involved me stretching some creative muscles, doing something I haven’t done before, walking out on that wire without a net, and I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do that if the Lab wasn’t so supportive. It’s a safe place to fail – and I can’t emphasize enough how important that is to an artist’s development.
“And of course it’s so helpful to hear actors read your words. When I’m writing, I hear voices in my head, and my writing process involves me reading the script aloud to myself – but it’s a completely different experience to hear someone else say those words. And because Jerry is so well-connected, the actors he brings to the readings are all top-notch, so your words get a fair shake. I always come away from the readings of my play knowing exactly where things aren’t working the way I want – and also knowing exactly where things are working. Which is just incredibly helpful.”
Plays read in The Lab over the past 18 months that have received their world premiere at Plan-B include: Eric(a), which was originally part of a larger piece called What Are You? by Matthew Ivan Bennett; Different=Amazing by Matthew Ivan Bennett and Clearing Bombs by Eric Samuelsen.
Plays read in The Lab over the past 18 months that have production commitments during the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, or 2016-2017 seasons include Mama by Carleton Bluford, Based on a True Story by Elaine Jarvik, Christmas with Misfits by Julie Jensen, Pilot Program by Melissa Leilani Larson, Ruff! by Jenifer Nii, Booksmart by Rob Tennant, and One Big Union by Debora Threedy.
Elaine Jarvik’s Two Stories and Julie Jensen’s Mockingbird, both of which were also read in The Lab, are being produced this season at Salt Lake Acting Company and PYGmalion Theatre Company, respectively.