This Summer/Fall, Thrown Stone Theatre Company will present The Suburbs, a “roving production” featuring the world premieres of three site-specific commissioned new works by playwrights Tony Meneses, Phanésia Pharel, and Catherine Yu. Each play will be set in a prominent Ridgefield, CT location.
On May 20, 2021, Thrown Stone Theatre Company and Ridgefield Library hosted Meet the Playwrights, the first public event kicking off this production. The event was held on Zoom and was introduced by Andy Forsyth, Assistant Director of Ridgefield Library. Kolton Harris, a “creative visionary leader, educator, facilitator and multi-disciplinary artist,” moderated the event, engaging in robust conversation about these new plays with the three playwrights and The Suburbs Director Kholoud Sawaf.
The playwrights began by introducing themselves and providing initial thoughts on the process thus far, explaining how they became involved with this project. Their eagerness to work on an in-person show, especially in light of the COVID-19 theatre shutdown this past year, was palpable. Pharel noted her background in urban studies, expressing her particular curiosity in this topic of the suburbs: “what does it mean to live in the suburbs and who gets to live in the suburbs?” Sawaf highlighted how her recent project, Curbside Theatre, an outdoor “like pizza delivery” roving show in partnership with ArkansasStaged, piqued her interest in working on more site-specific innovative works like The Suburbs.
The playwrights discussed the nuances of collaboration specific to this process: which play would correspond to which location? What would be the through-lines and shared literary and ideological spaces of these works in relation to one another? In what ways would they differ and diverge? Meneses expressed his joy in recognizing the “echoes and glimmers of things that we all discussed early on” in each of the three plays. He is most looking forward to seeing how the plays are “kinesthetically alive together” in the upcoming workshops and eventual production. Sawaf emphasized collaboration in this process, describing how this production will only work if all artists are in conversation with one another. She described how they are merging devising processes with more traditional approaches in order to connect these three separate but interconnected works. For this project in particular, she is interested in exploring the relationship between space and story, finding new ways to engage with the environments for which these plays are written and designed.
Pharel has been working to prioritize “play” in her writing and telling of stories, even, and especially, under the pressure of deadlines and logistical constraints. This has been the key to her creation of this commissioned work. She is particularly interested in Afro-Futurism and unpacking the Black history of Ridgefield through this foundation and style. Meneses described how he is working to forefront “joy” in his writing of this commission. Stylistically, he described his work as “MexChekhovian,” taking interest in the “working-class characters” of Chekhov’s plays and looking at the “cultural intersections” that arise between and within these working-class individuals. He highlighted how his identity as a Latino/Latinx and Queer writer plays an important role in the stories he tells. In sharing the beginnings of her process, Yu offered “I had to search for the message. I’m not usually someone who starts with an answer.” In her writing, she is drawing heavily upon her experience growing up and moving through the school system in a New York suburb similar to Ridgefield.
Sawaf spoke about how her approach to theatre is rooted in non-western aesthetics and traditions, highlighting her interest in the “theatricality” of physical theatre, as well as her passion for and experience in the world of filmmaking. In Sawaf’s devising and directing process, she is constantly exploring how she can merge the cleanliness of shots in film with the theatricality of stage pictures and their spatiality. This will be an incredibly important question to ask and interrogate in creating The Suburbs, which will function both as an in-person theatrical experience, as well as a filmed performance.
Pharel, Yu, and Meneses shared incredibly important reasons as to why this process has been different for them than other projects on which they have worked or spaces of which they have been a part:
Pharel: “It’s been really empowering and awesome to just share the space with Tony and Catherine […] I felt an immense amount of support from both of them and being able to not be the only person of color in the room — because I’ve been in the room where I’m the writer, maybe the director’s of color, because I typically insist, and the actors, but then everybody else is not. But, it was actually really awesome to be around other writers of color — but, not just of color, of different experiences. I like being around different people, I like learning from different people, and I really think this is such an awesome opportunity because of that. I’ve never been able to work with a director from Syria before. I’ve never been in the same room as an Asian writer […] I’ve been in enough rooms where that probably shouldn’t be the case, so I think that what Thrown Stone’s doing is very unique in that sense […] choosing a group of really cool artists that could challenge each other, and I’m gaining something. I don’t feel like I’m just on a poster for a company to feel better about themselves.”
Yu: “I think it was the first time I was in a group, a room, of artists where everyone was bilingual or had another heritage that they grew up with, and that was very cool and reassuring because sometimes it’s just harder to explain your work if everyone’s from one particular culture and no one else is from the culture you’re from, and they don’t understand that you walk, like, two worlds, or two languages.”
Meneses: “I really appreciate that what we’re doing is so subversive and surprising and innovative […] I think sometimes as a writer of color, we also inherit the stereotypes that are told to us about who we are and there are some artists that sometimes subscribe to that, that we are sort of just — though we are the authors of it, we’re also kind of continuing this legacy of what the perceptions are of our bodies. So, I can definitely attest, none of us are doing that in our work […] It has been really, really cool to sort of acknowledge, ‘I’m not the only one.’ It can be very lonely when you’re fighting this fight, this crusade of shattering stereotypes and perceptions. So it is really, really galvanizing to sort of be in arms, literally, with these other artists in the ways that we’re all sort of fighting the same fight together.”
Before heading into the Q+A portion of the evening, Sawaf shared why this process has been so meaningful and special to her thus far: “You brought beautifully the element of being hired and expecting perfectionism — expecting to be perfect. It’s like, we have this one chance, and then it seems like, ‘okay, here you go, we gave you the chance, and please impress us.’ And, I really value that this experience has not been that. I really value the togetherness of this team. I’m really grateful for how sensitive and how resilient this space is from all the fantastic playwrights, and listening and taking in and trying again and listening and taking in and trying again, and same from the leadership of the company — because it’s just, how else are we going to grow? We talk about safe space, but I also want to bring up the resilient space, where we do make mistakes and we acknowledge them and we take accountability and apologize about them, and this is really like this, having conversation when we get to those places — when we get to have those conversations and those collaborations with other artists of different backgrounds and different voices, and naturally we’ll make mistakes because, of course, it definitely takes an amount — a great amount — of patience to be in the ‘not-knowing seat.’ I raise my hand as one of the people who are working on that skill, myself. I like knowing, but I’m getting better at not knowing, and this team has done nothing but empower that voice even more for me, and I’m so grateful.”
In closing out the conversation, Harris asked the panelists, “What is your hope for the American Theatre?” They left the audience with these thoughts, summarized in brief: “economic equity,” said Pharel, with Sawaf adding: “have it not connected to Capitalism.” Meneses hopes people will “make space […] sometimes remove yourself […] own that.” Yu’s hope is that there will be “more room for new stories and new structures […] that we can expand what we think of what a particular culture or identity looks like and move forward from that.”
Harris closed out the conversation by suggesting that when making space at the table, going forward and working to change the American Theatre as we know it, maybe “let’s break the table — there’s other furniture.”
The Suburbs will preview August 26, open August 27, and perform through September 12, 2021 at Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and West Lane Inn. Tickets are available now at thrownstone.org/