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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

Photo: Kitty Geoghan
Photo: Kitty Geoghan

A Day in the Life: Studio Theatre Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel

Imagine you’re handed a pile of plays. Hidden among them is the perfect story, waiting to be brought to life. Finding the next great piece for 14th Street’s Studio Theatre is just one of Adrien-Alice Hansel’s many responsibilities. On Tap sat down with Studio’s literary director to talk about her work, the DC theatre scene and what she enjoys doing in the city.

On Tap: What exactly does being a literary director entail on a daily basis?  
Adrien-Alice Hansel: I listen to our artistic director tell me the kind of work he wants to be doing in the next season and beyond, and then I reverse-engineer the process to get us there. I find projects to share with our literary committee, who review and discuss the work we’re considering. I have to understand what Studio is and does, and to understand what work is out there – both in the United States and internationally. I learn the work of many different writers and read their past work. Sometimes, we will even commission a play from a writer. I also do marketing and the initial publicity for each play. It’s a big, amazing job.

OT: Any other facets of the job that are particularly interesting?
AAH: I also work as what’s called a dramaturg, which means that for all of the shows of the season, my associate literary director Lauren Halverson [and I] get to know the play really well. [We get] to know the work of the writer and get deep into the world of the play. A piece set in 1838 but written in 1980 will have a different context now than it did in its initial run, and we have to understand that context.

OT: What makes Studio Theatre such a  unique space?
AAH: One great thing about Studio is that we have four spaces with 200 or fewer seats. It’s a big operation, but they’re all really intimate spaces so being able to hand that to a writer is an amazing privilege. Plays can speak at their own volume here – it can be quiet, it can be loud, it can be exuberant – and that’s one of the really wonderful and exciting things about my work.

OT: What are you looking for in a play that makes it a good fit for Studio?
AAH: Across the season, we’re looking for range. The kinds of work that we’re drawn to and that work well in our spaces are engaged and immediate. They reflect the contemporary world, and they’re somewhat political. We tend to do plays about people who are engaged in their lives and very affected by the outside world. They’re grappling with big questions. We do both dramas and comedies of character. We’re looking for plays that give you a ride and leave you with things to talk about. Our plays will give you a couple of ideas, a couple of perspectives. You’ll have felt your way through arguments on both sides. The “empathy gymnasium” of the theatre is a piece of what Studio does. You’re going to have fun, and you’re going to be up close with the actors on a journey.

OT: You’ve been at Studio for seven years. How has the DC theatre scene changed in your time there?
AAH: There was and there remains a passion for new work. There have always been great small theatre companies here, and I have definitely seen actors come through and move up. A lot of studios have started commissioning new work. There’s a sense of DC as a place, and theatre [companies] around the city are examining what it means to be in our nation’s capital in such an interesting intersection of different diaspora and communities. Increasingly, I see a lot of theaters engaging with questions of difference and inclusion, working to open the eyes of the mainstream theaters to the talent that is here.

OT: Has Studio changed along with the local scene?
AAH: At Studio, we’re asking aggressive questions about who is and isn’t on our stages and attending our plays – who used to be in our neighborhood and who isn’t here anymore. There’s a lot of work to do, and I think that plays are the best when the audience is different from each other. The thing that happens in theatre that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that when your audience is a mixed group of people, one group’s response to what’s happening onstage can teach the other.

OT: What plays from Studio’s 2018-2019 season are you most excited about?
AAH: Cry It Out [begins November 14] is about parenting. The main characters are these two new moms, and it’s a very, very funny play about how parenting looks different depending on your class. If I Forget [begins September 12] is set in DC in the early 2000s and is about Jewish identity as well as life in DC – and the 14th Street corridor itself. Queen of Basel [begins next March] is set in Miami and is a new version of Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Each of the main characters have a connection to the Caribbean or South America, and it’s about power, race and desire. And finally, there’s another new work called P.Y.G. [begins next April] about a boy band rock star who hires two musicians from a hip-hop group called Petty Young Goons to toughen up his image, all on reality TV. It’s a play about race, appropriation and the consequences of trying to tell your story.

OT: What do you like to do in DC when you’re not working?
AAH: I have two kids so that dictates a lot of my free time. DC is excellent on so many fronts. It doesn’t have the reputation that it should for its art scene. Big, small, culturally specific – it’s all here. As a parent, so much stuff is free, so you can take your kids to see so much and it’s close to nature. I grew up barefoot in back yards and fields. You can do that in Rock Creek Park in small ways or go outside the city easily and do that. Everything from the Kennedy Center to the Atlas [Performing Arts Center] is within reach. And as a side note, the coffee shops here are truly top notch.

OT: Do you like to go see plays by yourself, or do you prefer to go with other people?
AAH: I don’t have a strong preference. But if you go with me, we will definitely talk about it – but only after when we’re in a private place. I prefer to be incognito.

Learn more about Hansel’s work and Studio Theatre’s 2018-2019 season at www.studiotheatre.org.

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