Shop Talk: Artistic Associate Jake Penner on 'Creating the Classics'

Posted April 20, 2021

Creating The Classics Final Web

It’s been a while since we checked in with Artistic Staff, and now is an exciting time to do just that, as we introduce you to a new play-development program at APT called New Voices: Creating the Classics of Tomorrow. 

Essentially, APT is seeking brand new works that honor the poetic, language driven nature of the plays that call our stages home. And, more specifically, seeking plays featuring multi-racial casts, and focusing on submissions from writers who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color as we continue to explore the question of what makes a classic. More about the program here.

Artistic Associate Jake Penner is helping spearhead the submissions process, and the program itself. He recently spoke (virtually) with The Madison Literary Club, about this new initiative from APT, and we are thrilled to share his speech and his insights on Creating the Classics of Tomorrow with you below.

Jake Penner's conversation with MadLit, April 12, 2021

Over the last decade or so, APT has begun a shift in the kinds of work that we do. Our company was founded on this idea that classical theatrical works, works by writers like William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw and the like, despite their challenging language, which tends to be rooted in the linguistic norms of their time, are all playwrights whose plays still speak to us. And in fact, these are all plays, given their century-long — and in Shakespeare’s case centuries-long — persistence in our culture, that we can probably assume possess something that will likely speak to anyone, no matter when or where they’re living. It’s this timelessness or unassailability, this accessibility to anyone despite geography or time period, that forms the foundation of what it means to be a “Classic”— essentially, these plays excavate some aspect of what it means to be a human being moving through an imperfect world so well that its effectiveness refuses to dissipate over time. We see it. We read it. We see it again. We pass it on.

But at a certain point, APT’s company of artists began to question this idea a little. If writers from long ago — Shakespeare, Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw — were able to produce works that still speak to us and possess the potential to continue speaking to us indefinitely ad infinitum, then whom else may have come later who possesses that same potential? Is Willy Loman’s refusal to acknowledge the true circumstances he’s in somehow less potent a reflection of that particular aspect of Humanity than that of King Lear? Is Blanche Dubois’ desperate desire for a better social standing than she currently occupies somehow different than that of any of the socially doomed characters in any of Chekhov’s four dramas? In short, the culture was beginning to acknowledge a potential next wave of plays that could remain unassailable by Time. And if that was the case, then these highly-poetic, deeply human plays belonged in the same pantheon of writers that APT had always looked to for inspiration.

So we expanded. We widened the circle of acceptable voices for our stages. And the most tangible example of this idea that we can point to is the indoor 200-seat Touchstone Theater itself — a space much more conducive to the kinds of dramas that, for example, were premiered and lauded in the more cramped post-war playhouses of New York City in the middle of last century, than our Up-The-Hill stage whose ancestors are closer to The Globe theater in Jacobean London or the massive outdoor amphitheaters of Ancient Greece. And ever since, writers like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have enjoyed a home at APT, as well living writers like Lauren Gunderson and Sarah Ruhl.

But in keeping with the theme that great poetry and timeless plays belong to everybody, APT, as so many of America’s other artistic institutions had begun to do, had started to fully understand the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the foundations of our shared industry. You likely noticed that of the 6 or 7 playwrights I’ve named so far, they all embody a fairly homogenous group, and are all fairly reflective of a Western European aesthetic, including the Americans. So we started looking for collaborators who might represent points-of-view that have been minimized or even outright exempted from the ongoing American Theatrical conversation. Over the last decade or so, APT has made a concerted effort toward hiring actors and artists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

But something curious started to happen once we’d set our sights on creating a more inclusive artistic community at APT. One example of this occurred while holding an audition for a play in which one of the actors reading for the role asked the audition team how she was expected to interpret the text she’d been given. This Black actress was essentially asking if the character she was about to read for looked like her, or if she looked like the predominantly white actresses who’d played the role to acclaim before. This question was novel enough for us to seek the guidance of a few trusted collaborators on the matter after the fact — and what came back was eye-opening to say the least. What we received was a complex explanation for what sometimes happens when actors of color are tasked with playing characters rooted in traditionally Western European perspectives. Effectively what was going on was that those actors were having to perform a kind of rhetorical gymnastics in order to really make their performances feel authentic — authenticity being an absolute pre-requisite for any work that goes on APT’s stages. Put simply, those actors were having to bend themselves a bit in order to embody a role that was likely never designed for them and their unique viewpoint.

And even though this moment predates my tenure at APT, I’d been involved in similar discussions at other theaters over the years enough to hypothesize the effect that this conversation likely had on the company. I think this was probably a turning point for APT. Because the way I see it, this moment likely implanted in APT’s wider consciousness the notion that up until now, while we’ve been contributing to the cultural conversation in and around the American Theater, we haven’t actually been driving that conversation. Because the only real way to truly drive culture is to create some of your own from scratch. So what this meant was that if APT was going to continue its mission of providing great, timeless poetic works for everybody, while at the same time expanding the company of artists to more equitably reflect the world around us, then we were going to have to create work that didn’t need to be bent to suit who we now were, but rather had room enough to accommodate our DNA in its current, more inclusive form from the outset.

In other words, we were going to have to write some plays.

As luck would have it, someone in our audience had a similar thought. Thanks to their generous gift, APT was now in a position to pursue this question that our company had once again found itself revisiting: “What is a Classic?” What makes for an enduring piece of theater, that we see again and again, read again and again, and eventually pass on to the next generation to follow suit? So Brenda assembled a small team — Core Company actors Gavin Lawrence, Melisa Pereyra, and Jim DeVita, along with APT’s newest member of its Artistic Staff (Me) to create a program tasked specifically with the creation of new plays written by emerging playwrights of color. We called the project “New Voices: Creating the Classics of Tomorrow” and set about establishing a guiding mission as well as a set of evaluative criteria for how we’d go about selecting playwrights to work with. The team settled on the following as the CCT new play development program’s mission: We are seeking poetic, language-driven plays with a multiracial cast of nine actors or less, inspired by themes that are both contemporary and ancient; plays that represent the cultural complexity of our U.S. history.

We opened the submission window on April 1st of this year with the intention of collecting 200 proposals from emerging playwrights of color from around the country, all of whom had a deep interest in poetic language and classical themes, but whom all aimed to write a story that re-evaluates the U.S. and its culture from their own unique, often underrepresented perspective. They’d be given an initial stipend of fifteen thousand dollars and a guarantee of at least one public reading of their finished script, the success of which would hopefully gesture toward a future full-scale production on one of our stages. As part of the development process, we’ve committed to providing this writer with access to our Core Company of actors and associated artists for workshops and private readings, as well as general dramaturgical guidance from Artistic Director Brenda DeVita and the CCT Selection Committee — the idea here being ‘APT has some of the finest dramatic artists in the country. If you, playwright, are interested in making an enduring play, give it to us. And, most importantly, let us break it for you. Let us show you its weak spots. Then, let us put it back together for you stronger, and more durable, its foundation now an aggregate of your considerable talent as well as that of our entire APT artistic community. Because, at the end of the day, our project’s title “Creating the Classics of Tomorrow” is an audacious one: Our art form being more Alchemy than Calculus, there’s of course no guarantee that what we produce will last. However, the resources that we have under our roof and on our Hill can ensure that, at the very least, the play we make together will be unshakeable, and with any luck unassailable by Time, thereby having an actual chance of influencing not just the conversation today, but the conversation that shapes a more welcoming ecosystem in the American Theater tomorrow and for generations to come.