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Drawing a crowd at the Playwrights’ Center

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With Jeremy B. Cohen at the helm, the Playwrights’ Center turns 45

By MAX SPARBER

There was a large crowd at the Playwrights’ Center Monday night. The organization’s performance space, formerly the interior of a Lutheran church, was filled to capacity.

By the estimation of the organization’s producing artistic director Jeremy B. Cohen, it was the largest audience yet in the space. He stood at the front with a camera and demanded the audience wave as he took a panoramic photo of them, later to be shared on social media.

Jeremy B. Cohen has now been at The Playwrights’ Center for seven years. “It’s really my dream,” he says. (Photo: Courtesy of The Playwrights’ Center)

I have been a member of the Playwrights’ Center, on and off, since about 1986, and Cohen was right. When I first attended the audience mostly consisted of a handful of other playwrights come to hear one of their fellows have a play read. They remained after to offer feedback of greater of lesser value, and it was rare that more than a half-dozen sat in the audience.

But Monday a number of attendees, perhaps a third, had never been to the Center before, and were there not as critical fellow playwrights but as audience members. It is likely the evening’s play was some of the appeal, as was is a new work by Lee Blessing titled Minneapolis/St. Paul. Blessing is a gregarious former Minnesotan and a Pulitzer finalist for his 1988 play A Walk in the Woods. Blessing is also a core writer at the Center and has maintained a working relationship with it.

The Playwrights’ Center does a lot of readings at various levels; I had a short play read there several years ago and received helpful feedback from a dramaturg. Blessing’s reading was part of something called the Ruth Easton New Play Series, named after a former Broadway star and longtime theater benefactor who was both formerly from Minnesota and formerly named Edelstein.

This series highlights the work of core writers, but is very much the sort of thing the center did with my play: Stage it in front of an audience so that the playwright can solicit useful feedback. Blessing’s play details a bigamist who has one family in Minneapolis, where he is the father, and another in St. Paul, where she is the mother; the character’s gender identity is fluid enough to support both, even if his marriages cannot offer the same level of support.

The reading was directed by Cohen, and would be mounted again on Tuesday night, with Cohen, Blessing and the cast having a day to mull over the previous evening’s performance and make adjustments. No feedback was requested of the audience, but it doesn’t need to be; after the show, well-wishers gathered around Blessing to chat with him about his script.

Cohen has been with the Playwrights’ Center now for seven years, having previously worked as the associate artistic director/director of new play development at Hartford Stage. We spoke just before he started at the Playwrights’ Center in 2010, before he even knew all the details of the job, and he told me that much of this job would be discovered by doing it.

Reflecting back on the past seven years, Cohen now says “It’s really my dream, in a way.” He describes working at an organization that is extraordinarily mission-driven, with several missions. Of course there is assisting in the creation of a play, which these public readings are an example of. But the center also provides resources for playwrights in an enormous number of ways, including classes, an online list of playwriting opportunities, direct grants to playwrights, and direct commissions for new work.

The Playwrights’ Center is now 45, and the organization plans to throw a gala to celebrate on May 4. The event will, in part, honor longtime member and Obie-winning playwright and director Marion McClinton, but will also include some on-the-spot playwriting, a Cohen innovation. As part of a live auction, attendees will be able to bid on having one of three playwrights create a short piece about the bidder, which will be rehearsed and performed at the event itself.

For more information about the Playwrights’ Center and the gala, visit their website at pwcenter.org.

(American Jewish World, 4.7.17)

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