The reading list: part 1

Ben French

One of the questions we frequently receive at the Center is What plays should I be reading? Theater is a live and wild form, and there are so many scripts roaming all over the world that it can be hard to wrangle some together. Do I read a Eugene O’Neill play or Annie Baker’s anthology? Do I go back to Euripides, or do I try to tackle a contemporary Rude Mechs ensemble-generated play? And what about dance-theater? Or what is Chekhov all about anyway?

Totally valid, good questions. With all of these in mind, the Reading List was born. A multipart series, the Reading List shares script recommendations from Center-affiliated writers. The plays will vary in style, tone, subject matter, and performative mode. Some will be rooted in naturalism’s soil while others will take magical flights to imaginative heights. Some will feel very familiar, and others may seem very far away. But despite their differences, we hope that these plays will ignite your imagination, challenge your understanding of what a play can be and do, and spark new and exciting conversations between our worldwide stretch of member writers.

And, of course, have fun with these! Start a script reading club with your friends. Read your plays of choice aloud. Throw one or two on your Kindle or iPad for a road-trip or your next flight. Go on a blind date with a play.

As you venture through the worlds of these plays, let us know what you think. Tweet us, Facebook us, tag us on Instagram with #PWCReadingList.

Now, without further ado, the first installment of the Reading List.


Janaki Ranpura, Affiliated Writer

Helen, Queen of Sparta by Theodora Skipitares, found in Play A Journal of Plays: Issue 2 (buy / borrow)

“Christianity does not exist outside of a time and a place, and neither does a play.

In Play: Issue 2, Helen, Queen of Sparta by Theodora Skipitares takes up its time and place. The physical publication, with parts that unfold and parts that pop out of pockets, takes up space in a way analogous to how a production might. Reading the published piece becomes its own play. Plays-as-text sometimes give me the sense of encountering a sheep lost inside a book. What is this sheep doing in a book? I ask. Helen is alive in a different way from a lot of written pieces and therefore worth a look.”

Janaki Ranpura believes that the way to get to the truth is through humor. Her projects seek to intrigue an audience with an interdisciplinary approach and affect their hearts with charm and humor. She designs street games, installations, animations, and puppet shows that combine text, electronics, and visual art.

Erik Ehn, McKnight National Residency and Commission recipient

The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy (buy / borrow)

“It makes the private public and the public private; liberates prose to the drama of thinking, and thinks drama into the quiet and imaginative depth of prose. Sudden, shocking—and contemplative. Timely reflections on race and appropriation; timeless exam of artistic home/ambition. Religious (God); familial (father, mother, husband). Sexy but not prurient.”

Erik Ehn writes plays. teaches at brown. tace et scribe.

Jen Silverman, Core Writer

Far Away by Caryl Churchill (buy / borrow)

“Its extreme elegance of structure, clarity of vision, ferocity of political engagement, and haunting beauty of language combine to make a play that's unmatched. In this one play lies the seed of everything a writer needs to know about economy, grace, fearlessness, and technical skill. It also maintains a dark sense of humor, which I think is crucial in plays that ask us to plunge beneath the surface of our political and cultural realities.”

Jen Silverman's work has been produced by Actor's Theatre of Louisville (Humana 2015 and 2016), Yale Repertory Theatre, Clubbed Thumb in New York, and off-Broadway by The Playwrights Realm, among others.

Rachel Jendrzejewski, Core Writer

Maria Kizito by Erik Ehn, found in Soulographie: Our Genocides (buy / borrow)

“It feels impossible to choose only one play! But if I close my eyes and pick impulsively, I recommend Erik Ehn's Maria Kizito, which examines the true story of two nuns convicted of complicity in the deaths of 7,000 refugees who sought asylum at their convent in Rwanda. As one might expect, it's a devastating piece, but also somehow light, swift, poetic, strange, illuminating, prophetic, compassionate. It cracked wide open my understanding of what both playwriting and prayer can be.”

Rachel Jendrzejewski is a Core Writer at The Playwrights' Center and a Spring 2016 Artist in Residence at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Study.

Sylvan Oswald, Affiliated Writer

Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes (buy / borrow)

Fefu is an unapologetically and subversively feminist play, without ever uttering the F word (it is set, carefully, in the 1930s). One of my students, playwright Nick Johnson, led a discussion with the question, "this play is filled with strong roles for women: why isn't it constantly produced everywhere in this country?" It's because the play doesn't soften its position through comedy or traditional structure. It employs the surreal without whimsy. It doesn't ask for your love and it doesn't have any men in it. Men are not the point. It is a play about the messy business of tending to one's own consciousness as a woman in a culture that refuses to acknowledge its toxic misogyny and underestimation; your sovereign right to your own body; or that a woman’s anger and raw physicality might just be valid and triumphant, even banal, the same as any man’s.”

Sylvan Oswald is a resident playwright at New Dramatists, a former Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights' Center, recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, and an assistant professor of playwriting at UCLA. /

Book photo used under Creative Commons license by Flickr user Sam Greenhlagh.

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About the author

Ben French

Ben French is a writer and interdisciplinary artist. He makes work with the neofuturist group Modern Shakespeare Society as well as The Sprawl, a multi-city performance making collective. He currently serves as a 2015-16 season intern at the Playwrights’ Center.