The MTA Playwrights Lab turned a hurdle into a unique opportunity for its students and recent alumni

Going online expanded the Lab’s access to theater professionals, giving students and recent alumni a chance to learn new skills, refine their plays — and work with high-caliber actors and directors

When Covid-19 forced the MIT campus to shut down in March, the Music and Theater Arts Playwrights Lab run by Senior Lecturer Ken Urban was thrown into turmoil. After all, a central element is to present new plays written by students in readings helmed by professional directors and featuring professional actors — a process that heavily relies on in-person interactions. 

Yet all was not lost. 

“Over the summer I started getting invited to do Zoom readings of my own work so I thought, ‘OK, let me see if there’s a way to do this at MIT,’ ” said Urban, himself a playwright, screenwriter, and musician. “So I started putting down the blueprint for what the Lab would be this fall.”

Urban, who joined the Theater Arts department in 2017 and created the Lab the following year, decided to hold the readings on Zoom. He invited back the students from the curtailed spring workshop, including those who had just graduated. Four of the freshly minted alumni took him up on the offer.

Moving between two worlds

Elijah Miller ’20 had already moved away from Massachusetts, having started a job as a General Motors mechanical engineer in Detroit. He was happy to resume working on his play, the serendipitously titled “Reset”; the challenge came from holding a day job while doing the Lab. “It’s not exactly easy to be as structured as it was in school, when I had deadlines and a dedicated community of classmates to discuss the work with,” he said. “It is challenging to move forward but it’s something I would like to do even if it’s not as consistent or it doesn’t happen as much as it did before.” 

Group discussions and readings did help Miller, 22, make adjustments to his play, especially when he heard the lines he had written out aloud.

“I tend to think of things in a logical progression in engineering and when I’m writing I think, ‘What’s this character going to say next?,’ ” he said. “But people aren’t logical that way, at least not always, so writing that way can come off as odd or even robotic.”

While Miller made changes to scenes to adapt his play to Zoom, Covid-19 itself had a bigger impact on the story of “G@M3R GRIL,” by Jordan Tappa ’21. 

Early in the class, Tappa recalled, Urban had mentioned that many theaters suspected that audiences now wanted happy endings.  

“It stuck with me and when it came time to turn in my final draft, I knew unequivocally it would be optimistic,” he said.

Landing stars

Naturally, going virtual meant alterations in the very way the workshop runs. Urban usually takes his students to shows at the Huntington Theatre Company or the American Repertory Theater, for example; this time around, they watched shows online, like the Young Vic’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Gillian Anderson. 

An upside of doing the readings online is that Urban was able to cast a wider net than usual when it came to actors: This time around, they could be from all over the country rather than just the Boston area. The excellent New York actress Danielle Skraastad, for example, appeared in both Miller’s “Reset” and “Crimson” by Jackie Montante ’20. The cast for “A Foregone Conclusion,” by Margaret Kosten ’20, was led by the two-time Tony Award nominee Mary Testa. 

“I couldn’t believe I got these people,” said Kosten, 22. “It was very exciting, and also very nerve-racking.”

Tappa noted that “the virtual readings provided an increased sense of intimacy. There’s this ability to get way closer to the actors,” he continued. “With Margaret’s play, I was sitting in my room watching this live performance and these incredible actors were in my space.”

Betting on the future

A double major in mechanical engineering and theater arts, Kosten has been drawn to the stage since middle school, and won the 2020 Wiesner Student Art Award and the Alan Brody Prize in Theater Arts while at MIT. She sees herself less as a playwright than as a stage manager, however, and that is what she is currently doing on the Theater Arts department’s virtual production of María Irene Fornés’s classic experimental play “Fefu and Her Friends” (1977), to be performed on Nov. 4-14 under the direction of Class of ‘49 Professor Jay Scheib. (Kosten had a job as an engineer for big event spaces lined up but it fell through due to the pandemic.) 

In the process, she is building up on the valuable experience she started accruing in the Lab. “It’s very hard to do anything right now unless you’re willing to learn these crazy platforms and learning how to do crazy things on Zoom,” Kosten said.


Written by Elisabeth Vincentelli

Posted on October 15, 2020 by Arts at MIT