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Boy Meets New Play (and Rhombus Turns Ten!)

Staged readings in 3-D!

The Boston University School of Theatre is lucky to call Kirsten Greenidge its playwriting professor. Nationally recognized for acclaimed plays like Milk Like Sugar and Luck of the Irish, Kirsten is now in her second year on faculty and has been very generous sharing her place in the Boston theatre community with her students. Last night, Kirsten invited her Advanced Playwriting class to join her at the 10th anniversary celebration of her local writing group, Rhombus.

Rhombus was founded in 2003 with six playwrights as a safe and productive space for Boston-area playwrights to have their work read and discussed. Their processing motto is, “impressions not suggestions.” Since 2003, Rhombus has seen twelve playwrights—its current roster includes Kirsten, Carl Danielson, Patrick Gabridge, Ginger Lazarus (whose Burning is currently playing at Boston Playwrights Theatre—read more about the production in Zoe Ruth’s recent post), Walt McGough, and K. Alexa Mavromatis.

Each of Rhombus’ 12 past-and-present playwrights were represented at last night’s celebration, which saw short 10-15 minute selections read by a group of local actors. Spirits were high and each of the pieces captured the energy of the unique voices Rhombus brings to the Boston theatre scene.

Despite the time constraints of this revue-style reading series, I prized this opportunity to look at the vitality and character of the new play in Boston.

Some background: I grew up right off the George Washington Bridge in Northern New Jersey and I was raised on the Manhattan theatre scene, for better or worse. My mother started me on Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast, and by the time I found myself studying theatre in a performing arts high school, I was hungry for something more. I became obsessed with the contemporary play and where the American theatre was moving. In my senior year of high school, I was given the incredible opportunity to intern at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, a new play powerhouse and tirelessly dedicated playwright’s theatre, during their 2010-2011 40th Anniversary season. In my life as young theatre artist, this was a Big Bang of sorts.

416 West 42nd Street, birthplace of five Pulitzer Prize winners!

As chance would have it, I even met Kirsten way back when she was first meeting with the artistic staff of PH to discuss Milk Like Sugar‘s development for its eventual production in their 2011-2012 season.

I cherish what I know of the new American play, especially as it exists in New York City, through my work at Playwrights. I have the deepest well of gratitude to that company for what it exposed me to and what it contributed to my own aesthetic.

When I moved to Boston in fall 2011 to begin my BFA training, I found myself missing that scene dearly, and I was curious to see and explore the new play as it exists in Boston.

While I have been a member of the Boston theatre community for now two and a half years, I have only recently begun to explore all that it has to offer. Thankfully, BU’s relationship with the Huntington Theatre Company and the New Repertory Theatre has exposed me to the work of those theatres. Furthermore, Ilana Brownstein (professor of Dramatic Literature and, specifically, Dramaturgical Methods, the class to which this blog is tethered), has connected our program to Company One as she is their Director of New Work. In between my rigorous course-load, I’ve gleaned bits and pieces of Boston’s new play scene.

Last night, however, I practically speed dated several of the voices behind the new play in Boston, and I finally began to sense a certain aesthetic and character. They’re entirely personal impressions, of course, but vital information to a boy who so curious about the contemporary voice in the American theatre.

BU School of Theatre’s New Play Initiative production of former Rhombus writer John Shea’s ERIN GO BRAGH-LESS

First and foremost, the new work I’ve heard is proud to be of Boston, a city which was once described to me as ‘less of a Manhattan-like monolith and more like a galaxy of distinct neighborhoods.’ I heard that last night, as the names of suburbs I’ve driven past on exploratory summer road-trips mingled with the many different New England dialects of the characters of Rhombus’ selections. These characters were inherently relatable.

That brought me to identify a significant negotiation the Rhombus writers seemed to engage in—that of style. I’ve learned that the American theatre was obsessed with realism—the psychological realism of the canonical O’Neill, Miller, and Williams plays—but that was a flash in the pan, historically speaking. Yes, it was a rather bright and significant flash that cast long and imposing shadows, but it was a flash nevertheless. Psychological realism fell as its major playwrights ventured out into uncharted dramatic territory.

Following the fragmentation of American society that took place in the 70s and 80s, the voice of the American play has become much less homogenized and much more varied. Last night, I heard forays into science fiction (perhaps the conceit of the event’s clever poster) go toe to toe with post-modernism and broad absurdism. Stylistic or tonal consistency seems secondary to evocative and honest storytelling for Rhombus’ contemporary voices.

My dramatic literature curriculum culminated with a unit titled Universality through Specificity. To hear the Rhombus writers work with what they know and what they care for—from suburban mothers to gay sexual awakening to automation paranoia to domesticated alien octopi—strikes me as that exactly.

I can only hope that the contemporary American theatre-goer is well-equipped to see the world through many specific, unique lenses. It seems to me that my generation is aggressively individualist, or at least likes to think of itself as such. As a young theatre artist, I hope that my generation can appreciate aggressive individuality that is not the same as one’s own. If not, production models will have to change because new plays from idiosyncratic voices won’t be able to fill even, say, the Wimberly Theatre at the BCA and its 370 seats for eight performance weeks.

I wonder what the Rhombus writers think of audience accessibility. This is a question that, for the sake of this blog post, feels like a different story entirely.

Kirsten and the cast of SPLENDOR at CompanyOne.

You can catch Kirsten Greenidge’s new play Splendor in its world premiere at CompanyOne starting October 18. Get more info here.

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