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Boston-based Fresh Ink Theatre Company's mission is to develop and produce new plays by New England playwrights. And this season, the theater company is producing only plays by women.
Theaters around the country are taking the time to cultivate and produce new plays, working in tandem with playwrights and audiences to create truly homegrown art. In addition to local theaters, grants from advocates like the Massachusetts Cultural Council and programs through institutions like the Boston Public Library encourage local writers and producers to create new works.
“New work is the way to make theater relevant, which is crucial if we want to bring in new audiences, and it's also a key way to address issues in the field around parity and representation,” says literary director Jessie Baxter.
One way Fresh Ink is attacking these issues is with its focus on female playwrights this season. In the same vein, Boston’s Israeli Stage produced a season of all female playwrights last year.
"New work is the way to make theater relevant, which is crucial if we want to bring in new audiences, and it's also a key way to address issues in the field around parity and representation."Jessie Baxter
Fresh Ink’s new season kicks off on Feb. 10 with "Don’t Give Up the Ship," by Laura Neill. This play explores the relationship between Diana, a middle-aged mother of two, whose life takes an unexpected turn as she wakes up as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812. The identity of Diana and the people around her continue to shift as she goes through her own journey of self-discovery.
In May, "La Llorona" by Cecelia Raker marks the second fully produced play of the current Fresh Ink season. The play follows the lives of three young women as they are visited by an urban legend. In a mixture of magical realism and contemporary horror, the play bends the traditional notions of what makes a play. The other playwrights in this season include Livian Yeh and Alexa Derman, whose plays received workshops to develop their plays with a cast and director in 2016.
Plays included this season aim to make representation in the theater more closely aligned with that of America. A 2015 study released by The Dramatists Guild, called “The Count,” showed that only 22 percent of plays produced at regional theaters were written by women. As the study pointed out: “If life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men.”
“Art isn't truthful if we are leaving out a huge chunk of the population from the process, and frankly, it also isn't as interesting — more voices at the table means more stories to tell and perspectives to share,” notes Baxter. “People are also more likely to invest, emotionally and resource-wise, in stories that reflect their communities.”
A second way that Fresh Ink’s new play development is working toward better representation is through their “First Look” staged readings, which invite audiences to workshop plays with the writers.
"People are also more likely to invest, emotionally and resource-wise, in stories that reflect their communities."Jessie Baxter
“Audience responses often confirm what's working well in the play, and can highlight the areas that need more development. Sometimes an audience member asks a question or raises a totally new idea that sparks something with the playwright, and it takes the play in a totally new direction,” explains Baxter about the audience response process. “That step of the process is really crucial and people can get a first peek at the script, and have a distinct impact on the play's future life.”
Access to local playwrights is an experience that Fresh Ink values for both the playwright and for Boston audiences. Fresh Ink aims to challenge audiences to engage in new play development in a more hands on way, while also encouraging audiences to follow the journey of a new play, from its reading, workshop and eventual premiere.
From emphasizing underrepresented groups to community involvement in new play development, Fresh Ink Theatre aims to serve as a model to other theater companies who want to share stories that reflect the current times.