Humana Interviews: Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner and Jill Rafson, Director of New Work at Roundabout Theatre Company

Jenny Rachel Weiner is the 2016 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at the Roundabout Theatre in NYC where her play Kingdom Come will receive its world premiere this fall. Her play, Horse Girls, received it’s west coast premiere at Seattle’s Annex Theatre in 2014.

Jill Rafson is the Director of New Work at Roundabout Theatre Company and has been a major champion of new plays; especially Jenny’s. Jenny and Jill first met by introduction from Josh Harmon (Bad Jews), and after attending Jenny’s thesis production of Nina at Fordham University (MFA 2014), Jill got to read an early draft of Kingdom Come…the rest just fell together.

We got together for a hotel room chat to rehash their meet-cute, the importance of institutions supporting emerging playwrights, and that a good theatre buddy + bourbon is the best way to survive Humana.
NE: It’s so wonderful that you identified this opportunity for emerging playwrights. I know so often that less really happens or agents won’t sign you  until you’ve had that first production. How do you find the scripts for playwrights who don’t have agents?

JR: Some of them are how Jenny came to me  through an artist recommendation. We also support emerging directors so we’re constantly talking to directors and we ask them what playwrights they are interested in. I also make an effort to try to cover as many of the MFA programs as possible. I’m looking for good plays so if you can get me a good play, I don’t care how I got it.

NE: Can you share a bit about Kingdom Come and what it was about the play that made it that needle in the haystack? What is the play about?

JW: The play is about two women who catfish each other on the internet and fall in love. It’s my musing on modern day loneliness and the way we hide and project the people we want to be.  How that intersects with our dreams and insecurities; what’s real connection and what’s masked connection.

JR: For me, I tend to get plays in phases. I’d been getting a lot of scripts touching on this internet thing and if are we more connected or less connected. Often, when I’m reading a lot on the same theme, I’ll finally read one that cracks it in a new way like, “Oh! somebody here has actually figured out how to get to the actual human piece of this.” And it was funny. There’s a lot of serious or self-serious work out there and I really strive to find things that actually have some comedy in them and are willing to let the humor come out. One thing I’ve always loved about Jenny is that she’s a woman who is hilarious. Hilarious women really are unicorns. I’m often asked, “What is the aesthetic of Roundabout Underground?” We air on the side of sincerity. Heart on the sleeve, narrative driven work. That’s just what we tend to like, and that’s what Jenny’s work is.

JW: I’m figuring out how to write through my perspective. Which is dark, funny, and with heart. It’s an interesting intersection. I’m a person who has real sincerity and real emotional depth in my own self, and also total sarcasm and jaded sense of the world. So it’s this funny, weird thing that I’m writing about which is people who really give a shit and are trying really hard to not give a shit. And that’s where the humor comes from.  We’re all trying our best and we care about the way our lives unfold. And I think I’ve found my home with Roundabout because of how my voice has developed.

A sincere way of life with a dark comedy on top of it in a clear narrative way. It’s not often theaters are truly looking for comedy. It’s rare actually that theaters are programing comedy.

Heavy drama is like looking at the sun. I want to deal with the same emotions and themes as a serious drama.  I’m masking it as something else. You can’t look at the sun.

JR: And my metaphor is ‘Eat your Vegetables’ theatre. You know when you’re watching a play that you should be watching but you don’t want to be watching it. Jenny hides the veggies in the mac’n’cheese.

JW: It’s so true! Life is so hard already. I need to feel comfortable to settle into the seat. I want to care about the people I’m seeing and I want to identify with them. And the way to identify with them is to see myself in them and the way to do that is with humor. It’s a reflection and a mirror. It’s us laughing at humanity and how hard it is to be a human.

JR: You may not be a 600lb woman, but everyone has felt insecure. That is the thing that you find universally throughout the characters in Kingdom Come. That’s what makes them so appealing.  That may as well be because we’re all feeling the same thing on the inside.

JW: Even if you’re not online dating, it’s like the way we project our personas on Facebook. We might not say we’re a different person, but we are projecting what we want people to see every moment. It’s how I want you to see my life. It’s a cultivated and curated image.

Jenny Weiner: Jill, you were actually the first person to read the very early second draft of Kingdom Come and you actually didn’t even tell me it was for the reading seriesI thought you were just reading my plays to keep our relationship going and I still hadn’t put two and two together. I just assumed that it didn’t apply to me, which is also why this all feels like I won the lottery.

Jill Rafson: I called Jenny and for the second time, tricked her into getting on the phone, not knowing what we were talking about, and told her that we’d selected Kingdom Come for the Underground Reading series; it was literally the needle in the haystack I’d been desperately wanting. And then one week after the series, we called Jenny to tell her that we’d be producing it this season.  I wish I did that everyday it’s the best part of my job.

Norah Elges: Is the purpose of the Underground Reading Series at Roundabout  to find a play for the mainstage?

JR: Yes and no. It has a couple of purposes. We’ve mostly done one production per season, and there was one season where we’d gotten a grant and were able to do a full two show season. The next year, we were thinking that it was going to be really sad when we get to the spring and there’s nothing going on in the Underground. So I added the reading series as a way to keep the space alive and the program at the forefront of people’s minds. The first year we did it, Bad Jews was in it and we decided to produce it immediately after. We discovered after that it was a great programing tool, and it was also the first time we got any awards attention. I wanted to try to achieve that without having the extra money, so that’s how the series started. We’ll be reexamining it again as we’re switching to a full two show season moving forward.

Erin Bednarz: Are the producing rules similar to Humana?

JR: Yes, it’s exactly the same. You can not have had a professional New York debut production yet. That’s another part of the series. I really try to at least find one or two writers for the series who aren’t represented and try to use that as an opportunity to help them get agents.

JW: Which is absolutely what happened for me. I signed with my agent a week after Jill called to tell me that Roundabout was putting Kingdom Come into the series. Initially,  I didn’t think we’d get the Tow Foundation grant because Roundabout had received it the previous year. I felt so lucky that they believed in me (and the play) enough to put together this full application. I have so much gratitude and love for everyone at Roundabout; to feel so received by this company, and so lucky to be a part of it right now.

JR: The Tow Foundation came up with this grant to give emerging playwrights the ability to just be playwrights in the year that they are having their debut. You’re salaried through the theatre you are in residence with and each company breaks it down differently. Jenny has a salary, health insurance, can pay her rent and buy tickets & materials, do research and have a travel budget. That’s the premise of it; to live the life of an artist and to not have a day job while you’re trying to get a production on it’s feet. So you can go to every single preview and this can just be your job for the year.  I love calling people to offer them their production. But my favorite call to get, is when playwrights call to tell me that they’ve quit their day job. And this grant just excellerates that whole process.

NE: It sounds like there is a real investment from Roundabout Underground in the longevity; not just of the play but also of the playwright?

JR: Part of the program is that you are automatically going to get commissioned by us for another play. We realized that part of this is telling a young playwright that they have a home under the arms of this big theatre. The whole point of the Underground’s creation was to have a safe space, and part of this safety is saying we don’t care how this sells, we don’t care what the critics say about it, we’re invested in you. Part of my job is to look for the voice of a playwright that we’ll want to work with in the long run; that’s where the commission came into it. And the hope is that we’ll produce the commission upstairs and say they’ve ‘graduated’. The track record has been really good so far and that’s the ideal; Josh Harmon, Steven Karam, Megan Kennedy, etc.

Roundabout was founded to do revivals. So what is the role that this theatre can play in new work? It should be going back to the original mission. It’s about refreshing the canon. Especially now when plays get revived so quickly. We’re getting plays from the ‘90s and the early ‘00s so we’re trying to keep an eye on what are the voices that will stick around in the long run. It’s self interest honestly, because I don’t want to do the same Arthur Miller play forever and he was — at one point — a contemporary playwright.

EB: And how great is it to see that reflected? To see Tow Foundation supporting and validating that?

JW: Their commitment to the playwright is evidenced in the carrier of these playwrights. Steven Karam was the first playwright in the Underground and has his first commission as a Pulitzer finalist and has two shows on Broadway this season, one that was a commission.

JR: We don’t frequently do new plays on Broadway. My new challenge is, How do I get them to stay in our family as they keep growing? Since Steven had already adapted the The Seagull for film, we are commissioning them to do adaptations of classics.

JW: Roundabout is making an investment in a young playwright, and the capacity to grow with the company is astronomical. They are the biggest company in New York and the support is immense and they aren’t just saying, “yeah we’re doing your play, goodbye.” Everyone at the company has said, “This is your artistic home.”

JR: Yes and that would have been true with or without the grant from the Tow Foundation. They are putting money behind the principles we’ve set.

JW: Every department at that theatre cares about the work. It is a huge company and I met with every department over 3 or 4 weeks. Not only did every single person know my play  from interns to the Artistic Director and Executive Director saying, “We’re so lucky to have you here.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?! You are ridiculous. Thank YOU for having me.”

NE: Something Umbrella Project has been asking at Humana is about the track record. Part of our mission with UP is helping playwrights between these gaps  staged reading to first production and first production to any next production. How has Roundabout really been able to set their Underground plays up for success?

JR: Visibility. We know we’re gonna get a NY Times review. I’ve also added that we publish the script so that it’s available for sale once performances begin. It’s on sale, in the lobby. Playwrights Horizon has started to do it. McCarter is doing it. That’s something I really like doing on a smaller scale. The press presence is certainly the big thing. Bad Jews and Speech and Debate are the poster children for this. Tigers Be Still gets done a lot.

NE: And all through have been produced in Seattle! Last question: Jenny, this is your first time at Humana  and Jill’s third time. What have been your Humana survival tools?

JR: A good theatre going buddy to keep you honest. It’s delightful to have a buddy!

JW: Scheduled bathroom breaks and bourbon. They sort of go hand in hand.

Jenny Weiner’s play Kingdom Come premieres at Roundabout Underground. In September 2016, Jenny will begin enrollment at Juilliard as part of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.

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