Playwright’s Lab’s New Works Initiative Builds Artistic, Economic Partnerships Locally and Nationwide

From Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City to Burlington, Vermont, and here in Roanoke, the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University is developing an impressive number of new stage productions by emerging student writers, thanks to a collaborative program described as “re-inventing Off-Off-Broadway.”

The New Works Initiative of the Playwright’s Lab was established in 2008 and has already helped provide production assistance and travel costs for dozens of student readings and productions in legitimate theatres nationally and locally. It enables student writers to work with guest professional directors and offers support for them to work as actors, dramaturgs, and designers on plays by prominent guest writers associated with the Playwright’s Lab such as Lucy Thurber, recipient of the first Gary Bonasorte Memorial Prize for Playwriting; television writer and playwright Jeff Goode; and Obie Award-winner W. David Hancock.

“We have been able to bring more than 70 top-tier artists to Roanoke to work with our students and build an energized, enthusiastic audience for new plays,” says Todd Ristau, program director of the Playwright’s Lab. “It is the perfect place to develop new work that can go on to productions in major theatre centers.” For example, The Arctic Circle and a Recipe for Swedish Pancakes, written by Playwright’s Lab student Samantha Macher, was produced at Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre and then transferred with the original cast to the Playwright’s Horizon Studios in Manhattan.

“We’ve mounted more than 25 full productions of plays associated with our program, and we’ve staged dozens of readings, presented special touring events and workshops by nationally known theatre artists, and provided support for our students who are creating their own new companies and doing new work all over the country.”

Ristau notes that in many cases the biggest barrier to producing new work is finding adequate funding to cover the production and travel costs. However, he emphasizes that “the Playwright’s Lab feels it is an important part of our mission to sponsor our student writers when opportunities to realize their work on stage arise. That’s why we have established a separate fund for the sole purpose of offsetting costs associated with the production and presentation of plays by or involving our students,” a fund that depends largely on individual donors as well as local businesses and area arts organizations.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” he explains. “In exchange for financially supporting the work that we’re doing, businesses and organizations get exposure to a growing demographic of hip, smart, vocal audiences. The relationships we forge therefore have a profound cultural and economic impact on our community.” In addition, Ristau says these associations are helping make Roanoke more and more of “an ignition point” for new work that creates strong connections with the international theatre scene.

“Building partnerships like this and creating opportunities for the success they afford our students is nothing short of revolutionary.”

The Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University will present The Matador, “a one-act anti-play” by Robert Plowman and directed by Todd Ristau, on the Waldron Stage of Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre February 6 – 10.