20 Playwrights Who Perform in Their Own Work

Special Features   20 Playwrights Who Perform in Their Own Work
 
Daring writer-performers to put on your radar—and whose work you can catch this 2019 season!
Good_Grief_Vineyard_Theatre_Production_Photo_2018_GoodGrief0011 Ngozi Anyanwu and Nnamdi Asomugha Photo by Carol Rosegg_HR.jpg
Ngozi Anyanwu and Nnamdi Asomugha Carol Rosegg

Playwrights performing in their own plays is not a new trend. Dael Orlandersmith, Taylor Mac, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anna Deavere Smith, Susan Miller, and Eve Ensler have made careers and been awarded among the highest accolades for their ability to both write and perform their own work.

In celebration of this impressive duality, here are 20 more playwright-performers who you may already know and love, or might be discovering for the first time. Most of them have work coming up, too.

Ngozi Anyanwu
In what is a rare feat for a young playwright, Ngozi Anyanwu had two plays produced Off-Broadway last year, Homecoming Queen and Good Grief (she did not perform in the former, but did star in the latter), both of which were critical successes. Good Grief, which was seen at the Vineyard Theatre in the fall, was a first-generation coming-of-age journey of love and loss. Reprising her role from the play’s world premiere in Los Angeles, Anyanwu sparkled as N, the Nigerian-American girl navigating grief in her childhood home in Pennsylvania’s suburbs. Truly an all-round artistic threat, Anyanwu not only writes and acts, she directs and produces, too.

Eliza Bent
If you’ve seen her in her plays before—Toilet Fire, Asleep at the Wheel, and Blue Wizard/Black Wizard—it will come as no surprise that Eliza Bent has been juggling the dual career as a playwright and performer for some time now. One of her earliest artistic endeavors, an amateur historical film she directed and starred in, was the jumping off point for her solo play Aloha, Aloha, Or When I was a Queen, which debuted last spring to critical acclaim at the Abrons Arts Center. This winter, Bent will appear on the Off-Broadway stage again in the world premiere of Bonnie’s Last Flight at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door. Directed by Annie Tippe, the three-part play takes place entirely on an airplane and features Bent as Mark Twain. Performances will run February 8 through March 2 at the Fourth Street Theatre.

READ: Everything You Need to Know about Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop

David Cale_HR
Craig Schwartz

David Cale
David Cale is no stranger to writing the monologue play, and though he's a talented performer himself, he doesn't always cast himself in his own work. His Obie-winning Harry Clarke, which debuted at The Vineyard, starred Billy Crudup. It was such a success, the solo play enjoyed an encore run and subsequently produced as an Audible production. A performer of the stage and screen in his own right, Cale returned to Chicago's Goodman last fall to perform his autobiographical musical show, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time.

READ: How Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Became a Hotbed of New Work

Jordan E. Cooper
Oskar Eustis recently called Jordan E. Cooper “a meteor of a writer—young, brilliant and astonishingly brave.” High praise from the artistic director of The Public Theater, which will soon debut the playwright’s play Ain’t No Mo’ following a Public Studio production last season. Cooper will star as Peaches in the world premiere of his work, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, and beginning March 12. The play is a satirical odyssey portraying the great exodus of Black Americans from a country plagued with injustice.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, whose plays include The Shaking Earth and The Betterment Society, proved he is just as capable as a performer last year in the Rattlestick production of his monologue play Draw the Circle. While the play emanates from his own experience transitioning genders, Deen is not a character in the play himself. He told Playbill that the decision to cast himself in the piece came from a challenge he faced early in the play’s development. “[During grad school] I was writing work that we couldn’t even find actors for,” he says. “I need South Asian actors, a butch woman… I found that I had to be in my own play because there was nobody else to do it.”

Halley Feiffer
Feiffer starred in the West Coast premiere of her play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, though she did not reprise her role for the show’s Off-Broadway bow. Still, actor and playwright Halley Feiffer is no stranger to performing in her own work. She has also appeared in the film she co-wrote He’s Way More Famous than You, and will soon star in the world premiere of The Pain of My Belligerence at Playwrights Horizons. Told over an eight-year timeline—and through the story of journalist Cat and her relationship to Guy—Feiffer’s comedy sheds light on how we perpetuate a patriarchal culture while offering the promise of a new paradigm. Trip Cullman directs, for a run scheduled May 29–May 12.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays
A recent alum of WP Theater’s two-year lab residency, Donnetta Lavinia Grays is an artist who, while seen mostly as an actor over the last decade (including on Broadway in In The Next Room and Well), is a rising star in the writing world. Grays performed in her play the cowboy is dying, originally produced by Coyote REP Theater Company, as well as an untitled solo commission for The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit which was recently workshopped at SPACE on Ryder Farm. Though she’s not in the cast, the world premiere of her play Last Night and the Night Before is currently playing at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through February 24.

Aleshea Harris
Aleshea Harris Costa Ciminiello and Andrew Wofford

Aleshea Harris
Relentless Award winner Aleshea Harris might be best known for her back-to-back acclaimed Off-Broadway productions last season—Is God Is (Soho Rep) and What to Send Up When it Goes Down (The Movement Theatre Company)—and while she didn’t perform in either of these particular productions, she is an actor, spoken word artist, and playwright who has performed in her own work, previously. Harris performed in the Edinburgh Fringe production of her monologue play Oddlie, about a woman’s journey to herself in a city of garbage heaps, and her spoken word poetry has been featured in films and at events around the world.

READ: Aleshea Harris’ Acclaimed Is God Is Will Be Adapted Into Film

Melinda Lopez
Teacher and artist Melinda Lopez is not just the inaugural playwright-in-residence at Huntington Theatre Company (her play Sonia ilaunched Huntington’s home for new work), she is also frequently seen on the Boston theatre’s mainstage as an actor. In 2018, her two worlds collided when she took to the Huntington stage to perform her autobiographical solo show, Mala (also seen at ArtsEmerson and at the Guthrie). In Mala, Lopez weaves tales of doctors and urgent 911 calls, a mother’s growing frailty, and a daughter’s quest for grace in an exploration of how we live, cope, and survive. During the entire month of February, Audible is offering members a free listen to Mala as part of the company’s Original Members Benefit (find out more, and listen to an excerpt, here).

Kareem M. Lucas
Recently seen at New York Theatre Workshop in his solo piece RATED BLACK: An American Requiem, Kareem M. Lucas continues to prove that he’s capable of doing it all: writing, performing, and directing. He is currently collaborating on the development of the theatrical installation The Black History Museum…According to the United States of America, as a writer and performer with the Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative at HERE Arts Center. He can also be seen in the Cherry Lane Theatre’s Mentor Project production of his solo play The Maturation of an Inconvenient Negro (or iNegro); the play blends heightened poetry and raw self-reflection to take the audience on the subversive journey of a young Black man coming into himself. Directed by David Mendizábal, performances will run February 20–March 2.

READ: The 2019 Off-Broadway Winter Preview

Natalie Margolin

Natalie Margolin
Natalie Margolin

Natalie Margolin’s The Power of Punctuation was the little show that could. Seen at the Davenport Theater in the summer of 2016, the play—a story of friendship and playful text analysis—received a rave review and quickly sold out its very limited run. The Power of Punctuation starred Margolin herself. The playwright (currently a resident at the Brooklyn-based theatre company Colt Coeur), performer, and improviser has a number of new works in development—including All Nighter, a new play that will be seen at Fault Line Theatre as part of their Irons in the Fire Season 2, directed by Mia Walker.

Shakina Nayfack
Before she gained a cult following as Lola on Difficult People, Shakina Nayfack was known as the downtown star of three autobiographical solo rock musicals: One Woman Show, Post-Op, and Manifest Pussy, all three of which brought down the house at Joe’s Pub. (Read her Playbill diary from her Manifest Pussy tour.) Alongside writing and starring in her own work, she was running the Musical Theatre Factory and working as a fierce activist (she toured Manifest Pussy throughout North Carolina in protest of HB2, the discriminatory “bathroom bill). These days, Nayfack is busy on new material, including her full-length play, Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, which received an all-star industry reading, which she directed, in 2017. Oh, and she’s also collaborating with Jill Soloway on a Transparent musical.

Erin Markey
Last season at the Bushwick Starr, Erin Markey earned their reputation as a singularly out-of-the-box writer, creator, and performer for the critically acclaimed production of their play, Singlet. Markey, whose work often combines music and theatre, has performed in their work Boner Killer (2017) and A Ride On The Irish Cream (2016).

Diana Oh
Diana Oh’s work refuses to be categorized. How do you label, for example, a show like Oh’s Infinite Love Party? An intentional barefoot potluck dinner and dance party (and sleepover) just wrapped earlier this month at the Bushwick Starr (starring Oh). “This is a party. This is not a play. It’s also not a play party,” reads a description on the Starr’s website. The show, a celebration of love, queerness, and art, is the latest in Oh’s signature feel-good, boundary-defining theatremaking, and a welcome follow up to last season’s critically acclaimed {my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!! The Final Installation.

Abby Rosebrock
Seen most recently in the 2018 Ensemble Studio Theatre production of her play Dido of Idaho, Abby Rosebrock frequently juggles acting and writing. While she wasn’t seen in the recent world premiere of her play Blue Ridge at the Atlantic Theater Company, she has been seen in her plays Singles in Agriculture (Dixon Place) and Different Animals (Cherry Lane Theatre).

What_The_Constitution_Means_To_Me_New_York_Theatre_Workshop_Production_Photo_2018_Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at New York Theatre Workshop, Photo by Joan Marcus (2)_HR.jpg
Heidi Schreck Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck
Since its downtown debut in 2017 as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (which she wrote and also stars in) has continued to amass critical acclaim and a dedicated audience following, leading to two consequent Off-Broadway runs and a recently announced Broadway engagement, beginning March 14. Schreck has been doing double duty as an actor and writer for some time. Her plays include Grand Concourse, There Are No More Big Secrets, and Creature, and she is a television writer and producer known for I Love Dick, Billions, and Nurse Jackie. Off-Broadway, she has performed in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation and Liz Flahive’s The Madrid, among other shows.

Nassim Soleimanpour
BIG spoiler alert. If you haven’t yet seen Nassim Soleimanpour’s NASSIM Off-Broadway, then it may come as a surprise to learn that the play, a tender story of family, love, and immigration, features the writer himself. Similarly to his earlier work White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Soleimanpour’s NASSIM sees a new actor perform the script each night. The script is kept a secret from each performer until the time of the show, as well as the fact that they will be performing alongside the playwright. NASSIM is directed by Omar Elerian and continues at New York City Center through April 20. Check out the latest list of upcoming stars.

Read: HOW SECRET SCRIPTS LED PLAYWRIGHT NASSIM SOLEIMANPOUR TO INTERNATIONAL STARDOM

Amy Staats
Fresh off her acclaimed run as a performer and collaborator for The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary, Amy Staats makes her Off-Broadway playwriting debut this season with the world premiere of Eddie and Dave. The play earned an extended run at Atlantic Theater Company (where Staats is the playwright-in-residence), the play is a gender-bending story of hubris, friendship, family, fame, and musical genius—and stars Staats as Eddie alongside fellow playwright-performer Megan Hill (The Jazzercise Play). Both Staats and Hill are part of the DODO theatre collective.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Nia Witherspoon
Nia Witherspoon

Phoebe Waller-Bridge may be the creator of the Golden Globe-winning BBC American series Killing Eve with Sandra Oh, but her roots are deeply steeped in theatre. The writer and performer is about to make her Off-Broadway debut in her solo play Fleabag, the story of an oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed woman with nothing to lose. Following sold-out runs in London and a television adaptation (now in its second season), Fleabag will play a limited run at Off-Broadway’s Soho Playhouse beginning February 28.

Nia Witherspoon
Recently seen at JACK in her concert-installation Chronicle X: A Revival, Nia Witherspoon has a number of projects to look out for this winter and spring. A resident artist at the Playwright’s Realm, performed in a workshop production of her play Witness as part of the theatre’s Beyond the Realm festival. The play, directed by Mei Ann Teo (February 13–14) intertwines the stories of black women warriors with Yoruba sacred texts. Next up, La MaMa will present Witherspoon’s Messiah (beginning May 23), a love story featuring a predominantly Black, queer, and trans cast and creative team.

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