New Jersey by Stephen Kaplan
One of the rare opportunities that’s open solely to New Jersey playwrights is the Liberty Live Commission. Building upon two previous collaborations, Premiere Stages’ artistic director John Wooten (also a DG member), approached Kean University’s Liberty Hall Museum Director William Schroh about the concept for a biennial commission that would specifically explore and celebrate New Jersey history as written by Garden State playwrights. The project was embraced by both the Museum and the University and a grant from the Westfield Foundation was soon secured to launch the initiative in 2012.
Those interested in applying first submit a proposal, often based on topic suggestions from Premiere that align with the Museum’s ongoing exhibits and/or local and statewide commemorations of historical events (i.e., James Christy’s At Liberty Hall, following Alexander Hamilton’s time at Liberty Hall, coincided with the statewide NJ350 celebration, while Martin Casella’s Black Tom Island ran in conjunction with Liberty Hall’s WWI exhibit, “Brothers in Arms: Memories of the Great War”). Premiere is also interested in highlighting the history of diverse geographic regions throughout the state, which is why each of the four projects thus far has focused on a different community: Westfield, Elizabeth, Princeton, and Jersey City.
Guild Member Deborah Brevoort’s 2016 commission My Lord, What a Night chronicled an April 1937 night in Princeton when Marian Anderson, one of the world’s greatest-ever singers, was denied a room at the Nassau Inn because she was black. Having grown up reading Anderson’s autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, Brevoort jumped at the chance to write about Anderson because it not only gave her an opportunity to revisit a beloved book from her childhood, but also enabled her to explore an issue very close to her heart. Brevoort shared, “I am married to an African American man, who has been racially profiled by NJ police on five different occasions. Each time this happens the question of how to respond presents itself. Do we fight it? Or do we ‘let it go?’ We have done both on different occasions, but no matter how we choose, there is always a price to pay [and] this is the choice that Marian Anderson faced in Princeton; it’s the choice that Albert Einstein faced as a Jew in Germany; and that Abraham Flexner and Mary Church Terrell faced as well. It is a choice that Jews and Blacks are having to make today with greater frequency. I decided to write this play as a historical drama, and worked hard to render the language, mores, and manners of 1937 with great specificity. My reason was simple. The more “1937” the play is, the more we will see [the world of today], and how far we haven’t come.”
Martin Casella, also a DG member, wrote the 2018 commission, Black Tom Island, and felt similarly about the current resonance of the incident he dramatized. Casella learned about the story of America’s first documented terrorist attack on American soil from stained-glass windows which honor the victims and are housed in the Catholic church he attends in Jersey City. “While further investigating the explosion, I read that an unhappy young Slovakian immigrant had been the ‘mule’ who carried the bombs to the two German terrorists. I was inspired by his story, particularly of how a decent young man came to America in 1914, only to turn against it in a tragic, heartbreaking way. The fact the story felt so current, despite taking place 100 years ago, didn’t hurt. That was the story I wanted to tell.”
Both Brevoort and Casella raved about their time working on their pieces. For each, the process differed from their usual writing practices. Casella shared, “I usually write by myself in my room until I finish a play. I put it away for a while, do some rewrites, show it to friends, and have a reading. With Black Tom, I would show a scene to…the team, get notes, do rewrites, continue writing, get more notes, etc. It was a two-year long process that involved everyone at Premiere Stages. It was like working in a TV writer’s room: everyone joins in, gives notes, and works together on the script.”
While the submission window for the next commission is not for another two years, Wooten shared his suggestions for future applicants: “We’re excited by what excites you; don’t be afraid to convey your passion for your subject in the proposal. If the reason it excites you is quirky or personal, that’s fine too. And the more information you can provide in your scene breakdown to show why your idea is dramatic and compelling, the better. We get a lot of proposals that are general overviews of a famous person’s life that might be more compelling if they focused on a specific event or source of conflict rather than trying to capture the person’s full biography.”
What’s been most rewarding for all involved has been the ability to introduce audiences to real people, compelling stories, and dramatic events that occurred in their own backyards. Our states history is deep and rich and it’s great that NJ playwrights are being given an opportunity to put it on stage. Visit Premiere Stages’ Liberty Live website for more information: www.premierestagesatkean.com/liberty-live-commission