Collaboratively exciting on the festival scene this Summer is the alliance between The Blank Theatre, The Hollywood Fringe Festival and Theatre Asylum. For the first time, Founding Artistic Director Daniel Henning, has opened The Blank Theater’s doors to Fringe, which if successful, may help deepen the relationships necessary to continue building Hollywood’s largest and most organized annual theater event. As a key cornerstone of Hollywood Theatre Row, The Blank, over the years, has also largely dedicated its pursuits to the nurturing and development of professional youth talent. Footlights caught up with Henning to get a fresh perspective on The Blank Theatre’s Annual Young Playwrights Festival, the only professional nationwide young player’s competition, now in its 24th year, and why The Blank’s role in theater plays far beyond the confines of the City of Los Angeles.
“One of the things you get from this is that these are just kids. If you saw them on the street texting or whatever, you’d never realized how smart and sophisticated they are. It’s shocking.” ~Daniel Henning, Founding Artistic Director of the Blank Theatre
Considering all the gender equity talk in theater especially supported by local organizations like the The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative , it’s really incredible how this year 11 out of 12 young playwrights chosen were female. Was that on purpose?
Daniel: No. The selection process is very open and democratic. There are 20 decision makers. We know the names of the kids submitting, but we don’t ever talk about whether they are boys or girls. In 24 years gender has never been part of the discussion. Nor age. We just choose the 12 best players.
Who’s on the selection committee?
Daniel: The selection committee consists of 20 professionals, mostly actors, writers, directors and producers – occasionally an educator. What’s really interesting now is that because we’ve been around for 24 years, some of the members of the selection committee are previous winners who are dramaturges or television writers and etc. And now they’re giving back to the next generation.
The Blank has a long tradition of reaching out and educating youth that are coming up in the craft and essentially developing new theater audiences. Has that been a conscious process?
Daniel: Creating young audiences has always been very important to me and to The Blank. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I created the Young Playwrights Festival to begin with. When I was a kid I was very precocious. I would just show up to places and make myself valuable. So you know, at like, 12, I would be treated like an adult, and a professional. And people let me do it. From personal experience, one day I just thought, wait a minute, I know there are 15 year olds out there writing phenomenal plays that no one will ever see unless I do something about that.
So do you have any 15-year-olds now that are precocious who are doing that in the same way? Does anyone just show up?
Daniel: They show up when they’ve written a play and submit it. They have the guts to submit their work to some crazy place in California. They’re showing up and saying this is who I can be and so in a way, yes. And just to give you an idea about where these kids end up later on down the line, one of our previous Young Playwrights Festival winners, Steven Karam, was nominated this year for a Tony Award for Best Play. Half his life ago that he was a winner. We’ve had premiers of all of his plays and he’s still very much a part of The Blank. And now, here he is, 35 years old. He’s got a Tony nomination for The Humans and shortly, he’s going to have a Tony on his mantel.
There’s a funny backstory to that too. It actually had to do with the opening night of his play, Speech & Debate, which was his first big hit in New York. There was an organization that had funded part of his production, who we had asked for a grant, but were not so keen on Los Angeles and weren’t going to award us with one. They were really debating back and forth whether to give us money. So, two people from the organization walk up to Steven at his opening, that they of course had partially funded, and said, “My God! You’re only 27 years old! How did you become such an amazing playwright at this age?” And Steven, oblivious to the politics at the time, turns to them and says, “Well it’s because I was a three time winner in the Blank Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival when I was a teenager.”
Were they shocked?
Daniel: Yeah, actually the one guy who was kind of rooting for us, hit his colleague on the shoulder and said, “See I told you.” And we got a check that year.
Also, Steven’s nomination is just another example of many contributions of theater developed in Los Angeles. His first three plays were produced, not in New York, not in Pennsylvania, not even at Brown where he went to college, but in LA. So he is very much an L.A. playwright.
So now you moved this over to Stella Adler. Was that to make room for Hollywood Fringe?
Daniel: No, no. We’ve always had the festival at another location, except for the first year when it was actually at Second Stage. Since then we’ve always produced the plays at larger theaters. We’ve been at the Falcon, the Hudson, at Arena by the Egyptian and now we’ve been at the Adler for the last, several years. The Stella Adler Theatre has been an amazing supporter of the Young Playwrights Festival. They really make it possible. Producing 12 plays that perform over a three and a half week period is a monumental task. Without the extra space, we just couldn’t do it.
So how does it work?
Daniel: Each Thursday in June we open a new program. Thursday June 2nd will be what we called week one and those three plays that will be in that evening will run that whole weekend. And then the next week, the next Thursday the 9th is week two and those three new plays they run all that weekend. Each play plays four performances in one weekend. The young playwrights festival is a professional competition, so we treat these teenagers like they’re professionals. It’s so moving. We bring the playwrights up on stage at the end so you get to see that they really are 15, and they wrote the play that just broke your heart like a 50 year old woman, but yet she’s just a little girl. No matter what night you come, no matter which plays you see, you will be shocked by what they’re writing about.
“While these authors are often as different as the states from which they come and the subjects with which they deal, they share something truly improbable. They’re teenagers. These are not only the voices of today’s theatre, they are the voices of tomorrow’s as well.” -Noah Wyle (star of television’s ER and Falling Skies), Artistic Producer at The Blank
How does the Hollywood Fringe play a part in this?
Daniel: The Hollywood Fringe is a sponsor of the Young Playwrights Festival and although we are not an actual part of the Hollywood Fringe, we worked really hard to institute an alliance and to make our venue available for Fringe. Normally because of the space requirement of producing twelve shows in three and half weeks, we just can’t have anything in our theater other than rehearsals. This year however, we were able to carve out the last two weeks for Matt Quinn’s, Theatre Asylum ‘International House’ lineup.
The other thing that The Blank does is The Living Room series and that is 25 to 30 new plays per year, being produced in readings but with real work done on the plays. We’ve developed over six hundred new plays in The Living Room Series. Last year, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle gave the Best off-Broadway Play Award to The Explorers Club a play we developed in The Living Room series which was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club off Broadway.
WEEK ONE June 2 – 5
By Rachel Linton (Age 18), Washington, DC
By Honor Levy (Age 18), Los Angeles, CA
By Sarah Holland (Age 18), Austin, TX
WEEK TWO June 9 – 12
SUPERMARKET OF LOST
By Casandra Hsiao (Age 16), Walnut, CA
By Alexa Derman (Age 19), Westfield, NJ
By Sarah Steuer (Age 19), Pacific Palisades, CA
WEEK THREE June 16 – 19
By Charlotte Leavengood (Age 16), St. Petersburg, FL
By Dylan Schifrin (Age 17), Sherman Oaks, CA
By Ariella Carmell (Age 19), Chicago, IL
WEEK FOUR June 23 – 26
DOESN’T THAT SOUND LOVELY?
By Gabrielle Poisson (Age 16), Boonton Township, NJ
By Lani Kording (Age 18), Costa Mesa, CA
STICK AND POKE
By Johanna Stone (Age 17), Altadena, CA