Who: RJ Tolan
Outside: Ensemble Studio Theatre
Tolan is the co-artistic director of EST’s Youngblood program, a collective of emerging professional playwrights under the age of 30. The initiative has produced such works as Robert Askins’ Hand to God, which transferred to Broadway, and alumni like Amy Herzog (4000 Miles) and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker (The Flick). Tolan is also the director of Mope, Paul Cameron Hardy’s play about the porn industry, currently playing an extended run at EST.
Tell us about the inception of Youngblood.
It started in 1993 as a program for actors, writers, and directors. The story goes that the next year, the writers kicked everybody out and kept it for themselves. I’ve been running it for the last 13 years—and with Graeme Gillis for 12 of those.
What’s your mission?
We’re looking to give young writers a foothold. When you’ve decided to be a playwright and you’re in the beginning of your career, maybe new to New York, it can be a really impenetrable-looking tower. There are so few ways to get your stuff read, and even fewer ways to see your work performed—so it really takes a lot of willpower to see yourself as a playwright. A lot of the time, you’re just telling yourself you are one. We’re giving young writers a chance to feel respected, to find peers, and to see their work in front of an audience.
Why is it valuable to bring young writers together?
A lot of playwrights find that they are “the playwright” in their group of friends. So getting into a room with a dozen or so peers who are going to understand what you’re doing and see the ways that they can push you—I think that’s really valuable.
How many submissions do you get for Youngblood?
A lot! We get about 200 applicants a year, who each send 25 pages of a play, a letter, and a résumé. We read all of the applications and agree on who to call in for an interview—about 30. Of those, we take anywhere between two to 11, depending on how much room is in the group that year.
How would you rate the standard of new work out there right now?
It’s almost depressing how good it is. Of the 200 that we get, at least half of them are worth our attention. Just getting it down to 30 is always tough. We’re looking for the stuff that jumps out the most, and that seems like something we haven’t heard before. We’re looking for playwrights who seem like they’re filtering the world through their work.
Tell us about Mope.
[Playwright] Paul Cameron Hardy applied with the first 30 pages of the play—it was the third time he’d applied to Youngblood. We were really fascinated by Mope; the voice of the piece is really deceptive because it seems so shambling and naturalistic but it’s actually incredibly carefully tuned and crafted.
Do you feel like you're giving the Youngblood playwrights a big push forward in their careers?
We’ve had writers in the group go on to great success, some of which we can feel very directly involved with and responsible for, and others we can’t. Something like Robert Askins’ Hand to God climbed all the way to the top, but not every season includes a show from a Youngblood writer that’s up for review. Most of the work we do is developmental—it’s the workshops and readings, and just giving playwrights a chance to thrash out the mechanics.
For more information on Youngblood or to purchase tickets to Mope, playing through February 19, visit EnsembleStudioTheatre.org.