Second Stage Gives New Plays Room to Grow

Second Stage Gives New Plays Room to Grow Wildflower is another blossom in Second Stage's Uptown Series of new plays.
Playwrights Lila Rose Kaplan and Rajiv Joseph
Playwrights Lila Rose Kaplan and Rajiv Joseph

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"Emerging writers need homes," says playwright Lila Rose Kaplan, writer of Wildflower, which began July 13 at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre in Manhattan as part of the Second Stage Theatre's 2009 Uptown Series. The Uptown Series is more than just a home for the new generation of theatre artists; it's a rare opportunity where, as Kaplan says, "an emerging playwright can take risks and get produced."

Second Stage Theatre's artistic director Carole Rothman and associate artistic director Chris Burney chose Kaplan for the 2009 Uptown Series. Burney says, "Uptown has always been about strongly told stories, with complex and real characters, often told through a unique sense of humor. I think Wildflower embraces all of these qualities."

Rothman and Robyn Goodman founded Second Stage Theatre in 1979 to "give 'second stagings' to contemporary American plays that originally failed to find an audience due to scheduling problems, inappropriate venues or limited performance runs." The mission has expanded to include the development and production of new plays on its mainstage and in the Uptown Series, which supports young theatre artists. This summer, Kaplan joins the ranks of playwrights Brooke Berman, Rajiv Joseph, Adam Bock and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, among others, who have participated in The Uptown Series at early stages of their careers.

Rajiv Joseph, whose play, All This Intimacy was featured in Second Stage Theatre's 2006 series, says, "The Uptown Series has been absolutely crucial to my development as a playwright, in terms of both opening professional doors, but also in providing beautifully realized productions with top-notch designers, a terrific director to work with (Giovanna Sardelli directed both of my plays there) and incredible dramaturgical guidance. From the moment I met Carole and Chris, I felt like they were invested in me as a playwright. After selecting All This Intimacy for the Uptown Series in the summer of 2006, they gave me a Time Warner Commission which led to the writing and subsequent production of Animals Out of Paper. It's incredible to have this sort of relationship with a theatre, especially one of the caliber of Second Stage." Kaplan's play, Wildflower, also directed by Sardelli, is a comic drama that explores the discovery of desire and its unexpected consequences. Kaplan began writing Wildflower "in the spring of 2006 in San Diego", where she was working on her MFA at University of California San Diego "and people were talking about the 'wildflower explosion' that happened every year. Wildflowers bloomed across the Southwest and it was an event. People would drive for hundreds of miles to see them. It sounded like foliage on the East Coast. My curiosity was piqued."

She heard about a Wildflower Hotline and became intrigued, wondering, "How could flowers be urgent enough for a hotline? It got me thinking, when does something beautiful become dangerous?"

Kaplan ruminated and then it hit her: "Adolescence. Adolescence is when something beautiful becomes dangerous. Desire flows through our veins for the first time. Innocence transforms into experience." She began to wonder about the woman who answers the Wildflower hotline and began writing Wildflower.

Burney saw an early draft of the show when he was brought to UCSD as a visiting professional during the Baldwin Festival of New Plays. He recalls, "My time there allowed me to both see the play and get to know Lila Rose a bit. Wildflower was one of those stories that just stayed with me — Lila Rose created a world of complex, unique characters that I would often recall. I continued to read Lila Rose's work, and continued to be fascinated by her language. It really was that early introduction and the continued relationship with Lila Rose and her work that made Wildflower such a natural choice for this summer."

He adds, "We are constantly meeting with writers, going to readings, talking with leaders at various graduate and developmental programs throughout the country — basically constantly monitoring the lifeblood the American theatre. I'm often asked how can I read so many plays — and I say it's a little like being an archaeologist in Egypt: You have to keep digging. It is the constant pursuit and the promise of finding a fresh voice that is endlessly exciting."

"When Chris contacted me this year about producing the play," says Kaplan, "he said that it had haunted him. New plays don't move forward without people like Chris Burney and Carole Rothman and theatres like Second Stage Theatre."

In the early developmental stages of the play, Kaplan was "told that this play would never be produced unless I changed the ending. Second Stage embraced the complexity of the play."

She sees the Uptown Series as place "where emerging playwrights can take risks and get produced….it is rare in this economy for theatres to take risks on new voices. I feel very lucky." Burney adds, "I think everything we do is about taking a risk and supporting the most promising theatre artists we know. Those risks can really be rewarding for artist, audience and theatre. Look at Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows with a shark as a gay love interest. Or Brooke Berman's The Triple Happiness that brought love and a movie star crashing into suburbia. Or Josh Tobiessen's Election Day that had a politician literally willing to go to the extreme for a vote. At the time, producing each of these plays was a risk both in terms of new artist and unique subject. But the success of these productions helped advance the career of the writers."

Rajiv Joseph says, "It's just so rare for a theatre to produce such new work from writers who are just starting out. For me, to have those plays taken seriously and to have my plays produced at that level, changed me as a writer."

Burney says, "Second Stage has always been a theatre committed to supporting living American writers. As resources continue to dwindle throughout the field, support from a major institution in New York is vital to ensuring that the best young American writers continue to create for the stage."

Burney uses his imagination in more ways than one when approaching his work. "Right now, Uptown is a summer series that is a cool oasis on the Upper West Side," he says. "I'd love to think of the day when it can provide opportunities to all theatre artists and audiences year round. Real theatre-lovers, I think, share the desire to uncover exciting stories that change the way you view the world — and I think that process of discovery should happen constantly."

* Wildflower plays to Aug. 8. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling the Second Stage Theatre box office at (212) 246-4422 or online at www.2ST.com.

Advance youth tickets (age 30 and under) are $20; and student rush tickets are $10 (available 30 minutes prior to curtain).