Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre
Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre

Sarah Burgess Returns Home For Kings

Alexandria, Virginia native Sarah Burgess hasn’t spent much of her adult life in DC. As a burgeoning playwright who attended college in New York City, it made sense for Burgess to kick off her fast-rising career in the city that never sleeps.

At 35, her first-ever production Dry Powder was chosen by Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, and starred Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria. Talk about a tough act to follow.

While New York may have put her on the map, you could say the playwright’s DC roots are responsible for her sustained success. Her second show Kings was inspired by her intrigue for the inner belly of Washington, and an article she read about fundraising retreats for politicians and lobbyists.

Where Dry Powder took a witty look at the cut-throat lifestyle of the elite in a New York private equity firm, Kings is “a lacerating comedy about a newly elected congresswoman who refuses to play by the rules of lobbyists – or her own party.”

While the themes of her work – corrosive money and power – do not seem to raise many eyebrows these days, her perspective has reinvigorated the conversation about what drives American progress.

Indeed, Burgess has made a name for herself when it comes to social commentary – so much so shes spun the phrase “art imitates life” upside down. Life imitated art when Kings inspired Washingtonian to create a real version of the play’s made-up listicle “Top DC Gay Power Couples Under 45.”

On Tap chatted with Sarah Burgess prior to the play’s opening about what it feels like to be a young, female playwright seated snugly at the table with Kings. Directed by Marti Lyons, the show’s second run – and first outside of Manhattan – is in production now through January 13 at Studio Theatre.

On Tap: Are you excited to have your work performed in DC where the show is set?
Sarah Burgess: I’m from Alexandria and this is my second play, so I was so pleased. Studio Theatre is such a revered institution and everyone nationally sees them doing interesting, cool, challenging stuff. For them to want to perform Kings, I was really excited. Having had friends who have had plays at Studio, it felt really great. It’s a play that presents challenges and I’m excited about it being at Studio.

OT: Since you’re now based in New York City, have you been shuttling back and forth a lot? How does it feel being in the area again?
SB: Actually, it’s great. I’ve been hopping on the train. I went down [to DC] yesterday just for a few hours to see a run-through. The play is being published and so as I’m continuing to grapple with subject matter that I actually found a bit more challenging than I expected, it’s been a good opportunity. Marti Lyons is directing this production and I got to know her when she came on board. It’s been so helpful to work with her on it, and then obviously working with these great actors, too. I love being able to come back down here.

OT: Tell us a bit about your reaction to Washingtonian’s response to your show. Did it strike a chord with you when a DC magazine created a list inspired by something you had conceived of in Kings?
SB: I was so excited. I remember I talked to Tommy Kale who directed the production in New York, and he’s also from Alexandria. He [said], “Washingtonian to me is like, I grew up with it in line in Safeway and it’s sort of an institution.” I’ve always thought of it as a national magazine, and it’s still part of the fabric of DC. I was bowled over. Like, it’s your hometown and you have the publication, but also there’s something about when you make up something offhand and then someone takes the time to make the actual thing. It was one of my proudest moments.

OT: It certainly speaks to the power of your art for inciting change. Can you walk us through what the past few years have been like for you as a young playwright toiling away and waking up to the dream breakthrough?
SB: Having your first play in New York is challenging because there’s a decent amount of competition and there are pipelines I wasn’t in, so it was a real life change to be a professional writer. It’s hard to make a living writing and to be able to support yourself at all. I feel very fortunate. I’m learning to adapt to writing on a different schedule [and] not having a day job. I feel very fortunate to have different opportunities to pursue, and I recognize that there’s really an element of luck. Artistic director Oskar Eustis, who was interested in the topic Dry Powder raises, was willing to take a risk on a completely unknown and unstudied playwright. There’s just luck in that.

OT: With your recent successes, are you feeling the pressure of expectations now?
SB: I mean, you have expectations for yourself. It’s not a question of returning to the way you were when you wrote whatever. It’s also recognizing that what you’re interested in changes and I think about that a lot. It’s a unique experience to have a play done and have them reviewed, and to be aware how they sell or don’t sell. It definitely is a separate category of experience from writing. I’m kind of an awkward introvert, so it’s a thing I grapple with. I don’t feel pressure or expectation. I don’t know that much is expected of me. I don’t have that from the outside. It’s more about wanting to be better. I think that has intensified since having my plays [produced].

For information about showtimes and ticket prices to Kings at Studio Theatre, visit here. Kings runs through Sunday, January 13.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.