The Pool: Making a Splash

The Pool, a pop-up theatre company, now in its third iteration, is set to open a new batch of plays by playwright-producers Jessica Charles, Andrea Stolowitz, and Naren Weiss at 59E59 Theatres from October 8-28, 2023.

  • Color photograph of three happy people
    Pool 3.0 playwright-producers Naren Weiss, Andrea Stolowitz, and Jessica Charles. Photo by Rebecca Jimenez.
  • Color photograph of two young men rehearsing a play
    Sathya Sridharan and Omar Maskati (L and R respectively) in Two Brown Porters. Photo by Rebecca Jimenez.

Partly inspired by 13p and Andy Bragen’s Theatre Company in New York and The Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis, The Pool was created and replicated by playwrights who seek to see their work professionally realized outside the confines of the institutional theatre. The reality for playwrights is that their plays might not fit the specific needs of producing theatres in a given season—or ever, for that matter. Could we take matters into our hands? It’s hard to produce your own play, but what if we produce one another’s work and run the three plays in rep? What if we pass the model, insight, and support onto other playwrights who wish to stop waiting and start making?

I remember sitting across from Lynn Rosen and Susan Bernfield in a diner in Chelsea. Both are playwrights I know and admire. Over omelets, I found myself agreeing to enter a venture with them to produce one another’s work the following year. We talked about how much money we would have to raise. We talked about insurance, Equity, and rental spaces. I kept hearing myself say yes out loud, but everything in my being was saying no. My mind told me, “This is impossible. It’s too much to take on. It will fail.” But there were Susan and Lynn saying, “we can do this,” so then I was saying, “we can do this.” And then we did. We produced 39 performances of our three plays at The Flea a year and a half later. 

That model, as we’d hoped, was replicated by Emily Zemba, Kate Cortesi, and Brenda Withers in December of 2021 at The New Ohio Theatre. And now, Charles, Stolowitz, and Weiss are on deck with what we affectionately call The Pool. 3.0. They will hand off to a fourth Pool, or Pool 4.0, who will announce and launch their campaign in the coming weeks. 

After a talk with Andy Bragen, a successful playwright-producer who produces his work by himself, Lynn Rosen said, “The ‘by himself’ part terrified me. I need people to bounce ideas off of, share chores with, bitch and moan with…It was only when I was joined by people I loved, trusted, and respected that I fully knew I could do this. I knew we’d never let each other fail. It was hard. I think there were times when we all thought we’d go insane and jump into a vat of acid, but it was worth it.” 

Jessica Charles, The Pool 3.0 writer of Antiquated F*ckery said, “The Pool offered me access. As a Black, queer, female playwright who lived in London, when I moved to NYC, I struggled as an emerging artist. And though I found myself a finalist and gaining interest from several well-known institutions, the gates were still closed to me. The Pool removed gatekeeping and allowed my statement as a playwright and my passion to get my work to the stage propel me. At its heart The Pool is about equity and inclusion, something that is so critical to theatre today,” 

One of the soon-to-be-announced Pool writers shared, “At a time when a great many institutional theatres are struggling mightily—and reducing the support they can give to playwrights as they find their plays—to be able to make work on our own terms is thrilling.”

Playwrights spend years writing and developing plays often to see those plays unable to find a home. That can often make you feel like you’ve failed as a writer. But why should large institutions that have so many concerns and constraints determine the fate of your work? Or your value as an artist? I asked each of the Pool writers how they defined success. Their answers reflect their values as artists and those values have been promoted by this model. Naren Weiss, author of Two Brown Porters, defines success by asking, “Were you able to retain your core values as a human being while making a piece of art?” If so, success. And by being at the helm of production as an artist, you have a larger say in making sure you respect each individual’s humanity. 

Often making work on your work begets more work. At the very least, seeing the world three-dimensionally propels writer forward in their creative and professional trajectories. Emily Zemba shared, “Success for a playwright is getting to do the work. It’s getting into the room…So I think success, for me, is someone asking, ‘what are you working on?’ ‘what’s next?’ and having an answer. The Pool production served as a proof-of-concept for Superstitions. It’s a big play, a surreal play, a risky play. Because of the strength of The Pool production, it got a run at OKC Rep, and I got to bring Superstitions to a whole new beautiful city.”

Pool 3.0 writer Andrea Stolowitz and writer of The Berlin Diaries told me, “For me, success is doing the job of a playwright; we make worlds that parallel our own to gather ideas and humans in a physical space in order to share a story. So long as I am doing that I am successful. And the beautiful thing is that at its most basic level, I have complete control of that. I can choose to roll out of bed in the morning, grab my notebook or not. Practically speaking, I do all this work for an audience, so just as I choose to write, I also have chosen to produce.”

Susan Bernfield, also the Artistic Director of New Georges told me: “At this point, with everything that’s going on in our field, production opportunities are simply fewer. So lately, especially when asked by the mostly early-career playwrights I meet with, I’ve been describing success as a feeling: satisfaction. Was the process of seeing my work realized and in front of an audience satisfying and delightful?? Did it make this really difficult thing I do suddenly feel all worthwhile? Because I don’t know how much more any of us can expect right now! And The Pool ABSOLUTELY contributed to that vision, that desire. For multiple reasons, it was absolutely satisfying, and absolutely enough.” 

Producing in New York or really anywhere (we hope this model can be replicated outside New York as well), has its challenges. Kate Cortesi, Pool 2.0 playwright-producer said, “Did I have reservations about doing it? Of course! I mean, Jesus, the dominant ethos in the theatre, and almost everywhere really, is that to be legitimate, to be worthy of opportunity, some authority figure has to select us. I mean, consider how much prestige is attached to opportunities simply because of the number of people they rejected. ‘In an applicant pool of over 4,000, these seven winners represent the future of the American theatre.’ That kind of language, that kind of thinking is everywhere. Playwrights are so hungry for recognition, some sign that what we’re doing isn’t just tree after tree falling, with no one hearing, that we put ‘finalist for...’ on our bios. We’re bragging about, what? A more prestigious form of rejection from gatekeepers because we so desperately want people to know that our work is distinctive, that it grabbed the attention of someone who matters, even if they didn’t put a penny of resources or a second of time towards growing it? And I am definitely vulnerable to that way of thinking. Being someone who teachers always singled out with grades or whatever, it’s all the same mentality. You’re good if some boss-type tells you you’re good. But the thing is, we don’t want prizes or commendations, ultimately, do we? We want an audience. We want the actors off-book and some kind of lighting concept. So, The Pool helped show me that what I really, really want, is available to me. Sure, it’s a hell of a lot of work and money and tears. I cried and I lost money. But we had thirteen magical shows where the audience really got it, the thing happened. And that’s what being a playwright is all about.”

For tickets and more information about the latest batch of Pool Plays, please visit The Pool Plays 3.0

Solomon Hess contributed to this article.

Color photograph of a man with short hair, parted on the side, wearing glasses and a blue and white printed shirt open at the collar. He has a short, graying beard.
Peter Gil-Sheridan

is a playwright, a co-founder of The Pool, and teaches playwriting at Vassar College.

Color photo of a young man with short, dark hair and goatee wearing a blue t-shirt and standing in front of a wooden door.
Solomon Hess

is a playwright and actor in his senior year at Vassar College. He was recently named the winner of the Marilyn Schwarz Seven Prize for his play The Game, an annual prize given at Vassar for an outstanding new work by a Junior or Senior.