ATG PLAYLAB SPOTLIGHTS BIPOC PLAYWRIGHTS
Over the past 30 years, Scooter has pursued her passion, earning her master’s degree in Directing from the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and becoming a respected script analyst, dramaturge and playwright. In 2016, she was involved in a playwright development group that, while beneficial, lacked diversity. She enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow writers but lamented the lack of BIPOC (black/indigenous/people of color) members. As a person of color, she understood the importance of being surrounded and supported by this underrepresented group. “On behalf of BIPOC writers, I can truthfully say that we were often uncomfortable being the only people of color in the room,” she explained. “I yearned for a space that centered marginalized voices."
Fast forward to 2020; she decided the time was right to form a BIPOC playwright group. She realized the group would benefit from an association with a professional theater company, in terms of credibility and recognition. She approached the American Theater Group (ATG), a regional NJ company known for producing new works as well as “undeservedly neglected ones.” Producing Artistic Director Jim Vagias, whom she had known for many years, enthusiastically endorsed the project. The idea was well received from the beginning, with 40 applications submitted the first year, and 11 artists chosen. It was designed as a two-year program, allowing other artists to cycle in after a year or two.
Now in its 2nd year, ATG’s PlayLab reviews and develops new works for the stage by straight and queer BIPOC playwrights. Serving as its director and facilitator, Scooter brings a wealth of experience from working with major theaters including Arena Stage, Goodman Theatre, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, George Street Playhouse and New York Theatre Workshop. She has also been a member of the Dramatist's Guild Institute since 2017 and is currently involved in its Plays in Progress program.
In selecting artists, Scooter seeks those who exhibit “vivid voices” with the ability to express their thoughts on both new and familiar themes in unique ways. She also looks for writers with the capability to provide constructive feedback, and those whose goals include having their work produced professionally. The group meets virtually for three-hour weekly sessions during the fall, spring and summer.
Sessions are very structured and begin with three writers sharing 20-30 pages of their current work, followed by feedback using Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which is designed to put artists in charge of the feedback they receive. In addition, professional development sessions focused on formulating artistic statements, grant writing, and obtaining literary agents are offered, with Scooter also meeting individually with each artist in between the 12-week blocks.
“I believe we are achieving our goal of having underrepresented voices heard by providing a supportive space for BIPOC writers, one where members have shared experiences and don’t feel the need to explain their work because the others can easily relate to these themes and issues,” notes Scooter. ATG PlayLab remains one of the few formal groups for BIPOC playwrights in the US.
“PlayLab helps us to live up to our mission to foster new work as well as nurture tomorrow’s artists. We are honored to be working with such dedicated and talented writers, and are grateful for Pandora’s inspired leadership,” said Vagias.
Feedback thus far has been overwhelmingly positive; members are very appreciative to have such a forum dedicated to their voices. “They thrive within the program’s structure and are encouraged by their productivity,” continued Vagias. “They are gleaning more about themselves as people and, in turn, their role as playwrights.”
ATG’s support has been vital in endorsing the writers’ work, supporting their efforts and providing platforms such as the website and opportunities for public readings. Participant Tracey Conyer Lee’s play, “Rabbit Summer” was presented by ATG last year as a virtual reading and will have a live staged reading this March at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, NJ where ATG is in residence. “Jim’s enthusiasm and support is wonderful and encouraging to us all,” noted Scooter.
Awareness about the PlayLab program has grown quickly, with nearly 100 applications submitted for its second year. “I’m thrilled that we have some very accomplished playwrights who prioritize attending our sessions,” noted Scooter. “Their dedication to the group is very encouraging to our more inexperienced writers.” As the program continues to evolve, she hopes to one day be able to offer stipends to the artists, which will help further validate their work. “Diversity and inclusion are common buzzwords in today’s society,” noted Scooter, “but it’s very fulfilling to be involved in a group that is allowing voices from marginalized groups to be heard. ATG’s support has been instrumental in this mission.”
Note: ATG PlayLab welcomes applicants from straight and queer BIPOC playwrights each June; details will be released in May. More information about PlayLab and ATG can be found at www.americantheatergroup.org.