The Kenyon Institute Presents its Annual Playwrights Conference June 11- 17
by Gwendolyn Quinn
The Kenyon Institute, located on 480 acres on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, is set to present its annual Kenyon Playwrights Conference from June 11 to June 17. The conference is one of the institute’s notable summer writing programs.
The Kenyon Institute, which offers intensive specialized writing programs for individuals in professional fields, was created by founding director Sarah Kahrl in 2013. The institute’s signature summer programs include its flagship Playwrights Conference; the Biomedical and Scientific Writing Program, and Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing Program. Wendy MacLeod, the Artistic Director of the Kenyon Institute Playwrights Conference, along with Ben Viccellio, Assistant Professor of Drama at Kenyon College; comprise the artistic leadership of the annual playwrights’ conference.
The writing programs are part of the college’s ongoing mission. Founded in 1824, Kenyon College is one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the country, and is best known for its holistic liberal arts learning experience and outstanding literature and writing curriculum and programs. Nationally recognized as having one of the most beautiful campuses in America, Kenyon is also home of the Kenyon Review, the oldest literary publication in the country. The newly redesigned magazine publishes works by Nobel Prize-winning authors and contemporary writers of all genres. Launched in 1939, The Kenyon Review is published six times a year and features an eclectic mix of international writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The magazine was launched by poet and critic John Crowe Ransom under the leadership of Gordon Keith Chalmers, then President of Kenyon College. Both The Kenyon Review and Kenyon College have been the launching pad for such writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Allen Taylor, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, Delmore Schwartz, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, Laura Hildebrand, John Green, and others. For 25 years, The Kenyon Review has produced a series of summer creative writing programs for adults and high school students.
This year, as part of the Playwrights Conference, the Kenyon Institute commissioned new works from the Old Vic Theatre of London, England; the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City; and the Seattle American Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, Washington. The partnerships fulfill one of the goals of the institute which is to engage three leading theatre partners, who are based in New York City, the UK, and a regional company in the U.S.
The artistic staff of the invited theaters — which include literary managers, associate artistic directors, and playwrights — are joined by the faculty of the Kenyon Institute to teach and lead small group morning sessions focused on varied topics in play development. During the afternoons, registered participants have the opportunity to write and revise their works. In the evenings, the participants hear scenes of their own and others’ works-in-progress read by the Institute’s ensemble of actors.
Another mission of the conference is to provide an environment for aspiring writers to further develop, create, and present new works. “Kenyon College’s Kenyon Institute is a place that deeply values literature and creative writing,” says Kahrl. “We had a distinctive idea: that we wanted to provide a writer’s retreat and safe space for significant writers to experiment with their plays before moving them on stage, which often is the case with many new-play-development programs. Plays move so quickly into production that there often isn’t time to rewrite, revise, and rethink, without the pressure of critics or ticket sales. The wonderful thing about the playwrights’ conference is that we were able from the beginning to engage theaters on both sides of the Atlantic that were working at the top levels of new play development.”
A theater major at Smith College in Northampton, MA, Kahrl’s first jobs included stage manager and assistant director with various theater production companies on the East Coast. During that time, she became a founding member of Shakespeare & Company, a British-American company based in The Berkshires of Massachusetts.
After Kahrl’s career in the nonprofit world, she spent the next 30 years in development, raising funds for several cultural institutions including the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), which is a multi-city arts and presenting organization in Columbus, Ohio.
It was during that time that Kahrl received an offer to join the staff at Kenyon College. As a fundraiser for the institution, her first job was working with Paul Newman, one of Kenyon’s most famous alumni, and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward. In 1980, Newman and Woodward began the Kenyon Theater Festival, another successful but short-lived regional summer program. One of the festival’s initial successes was a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, which made its Broadway debut in 1981 with Woodward and Jane Curtin.
In 2004, Kahrl was named Vice President of Kenyon College Relations, a position she held through 2014. In her position, she led a successful $240 million campaign for the college. “The first year of the Kenyon Institute was 2013, so for a while, I was doing both jobs,” she says. “It’s been such a captivating, fast-growing, wonderful program that I’ve been running that ever since. The Kenyon College Board of Trustees wanted to turn their attention to what we could do in the summer that would promote Kenyon’s mission and distinctiveness, which led to the formation of the Institute.”
The Kenyon Institute provides funding to each theater partner, along with the tools to experiment with their play. Also, the Institute brings in an Equity cast from New York, along with student interns and local non-equity actors, to read the plays, and hires a casting agent in New York. Once the three commissioned companies submit their plays, Christian Parker, who is the Chair, Head of Dramaturgy Concentration at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York as well as the Director-in-Residence at Kenyon Playwrights Conference, collaborates with the casting director to cast the plays. At that point, a series of rehearsals and readings are held.
The institute’s goal is to take the stress out of the production process so that the playwrights have the opportunity to focus on writing. “There are many incentives that makes our program distinctive,” says Kahrl. “We issue three ten-thousand-dollar commissions to theater companies that we nominate to participate in this program. There are no strings attached. We don’t take a financial interest in the play. We just ask that we’re listed when the play is produced. In exchange for that, the company may select a playwright of their choice in consultation with us for the commission. The commission includes a two-week residency at Kenyon. The first week, the playwright, if they choose, can come here and be at the beautiful Kenyon Inn and write in the quiet and beauty of Gambier. Many of the playwrights are happy to have that respite. The second week is the presentation of the conference.”
In previous years, the Kenyon Institute’s theater partners have included the Atlantic Theater Company (New York, NY), Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago, IL), Hampstead Theatre (London, England), Bush Theatre (London, England), Manhattan Theatre Club (New York, NY), La Jolla Playhouse (La Jolla, CA), Center Stage (Baltimore, MD), Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester, England), and Woolly Mammoth Theatre (Washington, DC). “It’s a great advantage to have all three companies on site,” says Kahrl, “Some of the artistic staff have heard of one another, but never met. There’s a great collaboration that can happen there as well.”
The Kenyon Institute Playwrights Conference accepts between 50 and 75 applicants, who are required to submit a writing sample that can include five pages of dialogue or a scene, which gives the conference leaders an idea of the level of the playwright’s experience. Participants are required to attend with a laptop or an iPad.
“You can imagine if you were sitting in a classroom with eight other people with the literary manager from Playwrights Horizons, or Roundabout, or Steppenwolf, or any of our partner companies, it’s a real privilege that would be hard to find elsewhere,” says Kahrl. “Students appreciate that level of experience. So [commissioned theater companies] play the role of teacher here. Also, they’re the ones with probably the artistic director of the company that has selected their commission playwright. It’s their job to assist that playwright and get the play to the point where it could be producible by the company. They’re sitting in on the rehearsals, advising, talking to the playwright. It’ s a great conversation for that commission playwright to be able to have so that the play has the best possible chance of making it to stage.”
The Kenyon Playwrights Conference is different from other theater festivals and conferences. The focus of this conference is on the development of the writers and to provide a high-quality environment and a transformative experience.
“The Playwrights Conference is a unique opportunity for playwrights at all levels to experiment with and produce their work and move their work forward rapidly in a serene non-commercial setting,” Kahrl continues. “It’s true, and it’s no mistake that it’s called a writer’s intensive program because people are writing all the time. It’s very invigorating. Over and over, I have read responses from our participants and our playwrights talking about the volume and quality of work that they’ve been able to do, out of sight of the critics and an audience, to find their voices as writers and produce the work that they believe expresses their story. It’s enormously rewarding to see the commission plays take the stage after a rapid development and to see them moving forward and into production.”
Bottom line, the festival is productive and fun, says Kahrl: “I also would say that the community of playwrights that is created here — everyone from the intern company all the way up to the commission playwrights and the literary managers — are focused on doing the best playwriting possible in the most creative way, and it’s a fun place to be.”
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to BlackEnterprise.com, Black Enterprise’s BE Pulse, Huffington Post and EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.