Tennessee Playwrights Studio (TPS) is a playwright development lab in Nashville that selects playwrights state-wide each year to create new works. Twenty-two dramatists have written with them since they began in 2018, including DG members Claudia Barnett, Lori Fischer, Gaye Jeffers, Emmalee Manes, Amina S. McIntyre, Caitlin Myers, and former Tennessee Regional Rep Arabelle Pollick.
I spoke with TPS’s Co-Founders about their impact. Meet Program Director/Producer Molly Breen and TPS Director/DG Member Kenley Smith!
Harrison Young: What was your inspiration?
Kenley Smith: I came here in 2011 as an Ingram playwright at the then Tennessee Rep, now Nashville Rep. It was really a great experience being in a room with four playwrights, the actors, and developing the piece over an eight or nine month period. I realized it’s what I wished my MFA program had been to actually have the time to really relax and develop the piece with the peer input. It’s the kind of thing you miss when you’re out of it, so Molly and I decided, “Let’s just do our thing our way.”
Harrison Young: Was it only play development at the beginning?
Molly Breen: Yes, for the first year and a half, and then we thought, “Let’s go ahead and produce something.” That went very well, so we decided to produce more shows. Two of the plays that we’re doing in this season came out of the playwright development lab, and they really just exemplified the kind of work we want to see out there, work that’s current and speaks to issues of today.
Harrison Young: How do you decide on which playwrights you support each year?
Kenley Smith: Do I have a sense of the vision of the playwright? Is there something there that really stands out? Is the writing sample something where I can see this is a person who looks at the world in a way perhaps even that I haven’t imagined for myself? It’s a vision, facility for language, sometimes the ambition of the project. Every year it’s a unique group.
Harrison Young: What’s cool this year?
Kenley Smith: We got a little more out of our comfort zone. This year René Millán is really using a different technique. He directs and teaches using the Suzuki method, so he’s devising a piece. Jaclynn Jutting is doing an adaptation of a restoration comedy, The Basset-Table. That’s not usually what we do, but why not? Why don’t we make it part of what we do?
Harrison Young: How do you adapt for changes in recent years?
Kenley Smith: We did a lot of adapting last year with COVID. You don’t fight the change; you ask, “How does it help us? How do we expand our mission?” We can go to the corners of Tennessee and people don’t have to worry about travel. One of our Associates, Melissa McKnight, is in Memphis. Adapting has expanded our scope and audience.
Molly Breen: Virtual theatre helps make theatre more inclusive, too, for people who are elderly, or people with special needs, or from areas where live theatre doesn’t exist. I hope this trend continues from Broadway to local theatres. Having a virtual option as the norm would be great.
Harrison Young: Do you have advice for DG members reading today?
Kenley Smith: Be open, because the landscape is changing. Everything is shifting a great deal. I think COVID accelerated that, but don’t get discouraged. Don’t resist it, because I think this may create more opportunities than people imagine.
You may apply for TPS in the fall each year at tnplaywrights.org and follow TNDramatists on Facebook for more opportunities across the Volunteer State!