By Roy Steinberg, Producing Artistic Director
Each spring, a stellar cast of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwrights converge on Cape May to coach and encourage emerging talent in their profession. The program, Cape May Stage’s National Playwrights Symposium, was launched back in 2011. The idea grew out of a conversation I had with Shawn Fisher two years before when I asked him to design sets for the play, “Proof,” which we staged that year, and he casually mentioned that he was also a playwright.
With only slight hyperbole, I liken that moment to Leonardo da Vinci telling the Medici family that in addition to building bridges and war machines, he also painted a little. Since then, Cape May Stage has produced several of Shawn’s plays, and he has served as our theater’s Literary Manager. Together, we share a vision of supporting a creative atmosphere where writers can actually create new work. That view led to the start of our National Playwrights Symposium.
This year, writers from across the country will again gather in Cape May for a unique workshop that runs from May 15-18. Each playwright in attendance will have submitted a sample of their work in advance, and we select the most interesting voices to join us. We limit the number of participants to ensure that each one gets individual attention.
Master playwrights then give the writers assignments to compose a scene or short play, after which actors read out their words from the stage for the first time. The master playwrights then comment on the script offering a balanced blend of critiques and compliments. Over the course of the week, the writers also have a one-on-one session with a master playwright as they continue to craft their stories.
This season’s master playwright mentors include John Patrick Shanley who boasts an Oscar, a Tony Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. Shanley will be joined by Alan Zweibel, a writer on the original “SNL” who won a Tony Award with Billy Crystal and has five Emmys as well as the James Thurber Award for Comedy. Legendary playwright John Guare, who was recently honored at Lincoln Center for a Lifetime Achievement Award, and who has a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination, will make a special appearance at the symposium via Zoom. And Eisa Davis, an award-winning writer, actor, and singer-songwriter, who was recently a Pulitzer prize finalist, will appear to talk about her work and share her writing wisdom with attendees.
Last year, we opened up the final readings to the public so that Cape May audiences could hear pieces of new plays that likely hadn’t existed the week before and writers could hear feedback directly from the audience on how their work was received. Did people laugh or did they cough and shuffle? This year’s open reading will be held at the historic Robert Shackleton Playhouse at 405 Lafayette Street on May 18 at 7 p.m. This creative and unique event is free for the public to attend.
What’s most exciting for me is that many of our writers form a kind of community when they’re here. They stay up all night reading each other’s work and refining the pieces that were read publicly earlier that day. This season, Cape May Stage is doing several readings of full plays, some of which began as a past symposium assignment.
When Tony Award winner Terrence McNally was re-writing his Broadway play called “It’s Only a Play,” he was actually in Cape May as a master playwright at that year’s symposium and worked a joke into his play about an actress who performed on stage in Cape May. A world-acclaimed author promoting theater in Cape May to Broadway audiences was certainly a nice nod to our town.
It is always gratifying to hear the high regard with which Cape May Stage is held by pillars in our industry. Our National Playwrights Symposium shines yet another spotlight on Cape May’s artistic community.
For more information about Cape May Stage’s National Playwights Symposium and our upcoming shows, visit capemaystage.org or call (609) 770-8311.