At a time when many regional theaters are decreasing their staffs because of COVID, the economy and shrinking attendance, Palm Beach Dramaworks has a new hire.
Producing artistic director William Hayes has announced the addition of the company’s first resident playwright, Jenny Connell Davis, whose Holocaust-themed drama The Messenger will have its world premiere at the downtown West Palm Beach playhouse this December.
“As a regional theater, I think you have a responsibility to develop new works,” says Hayes. “It just seemed to be a natural phase to start getting artists in residence. So this is just a natural state in the evolution of our new play program.”
Davis’s relationship with PBD goes back to 2020, when her play As I See It got a public reading in the company’s new play festival. Soon afterwards, Hayes put the work on the mainstage schedule, but the production never happened when coronavirus caused the season to be canceled.
Still, Hayes encouraged Davis to submit any subsequent scripts she writes, feeling that he had found not only a talented emerging playwright but one with a “similar sensibility.”
“I think we feel passionate about the same kind of things,” he explains. “We’re aligned politically and socially. We have the same set of values and principles. We have similar taste when talking about theater. And she believes in the kind of work that’s getting done here at Dramaworks.”
Asked about their similar mindset, Davis says, “I think he and I both grew up steeped in the classics of American theater. In plays that are chewy challenges for actors. And he’s the first to tell you he’s a history buff. I am really interested in looking at finding new pathways into telling stories about historical moments and events. You can learn about history in textbooks and in a classroom, but you can also learn about it in theater. Theater is where we tell stories about who we are and one of the ways we know about who we are, is we talk about who we’ve been.”
In addition to PBD, Davis has been commissioned by Anaheim’s Chance Theater, Austin’s Penfold Theater and Ars Nova of New York City. In recent years, she has branched out into television and film. Davis is the in-house writer for the Emmy-winning Baobab Studios, developing stories for various media. Her screen adaptation of a young adult novel is currently under development with Fox/Disney and her first pilot script has sold to Sony.
Davis was born and raised in Maine, but now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and children. So like the arrangement at some regional theaters, Davis will not actually be in residence at PBD, but will fly in as needed.
“I’ll be taking a lot of planes, coming in for events when I can, but I won’t be relocating,” she says. “I’ve got kids under the age of 10, and all that that implies.”
Hayes expects Davis to be the first of several resident playwrights at Dramaworks, who will develop their own scripts and lend other support to the company’s new play program. “Jenny is the first, perhaps the first of several. In some ways I will use this person as an artistic adviser. To get a female perspective on things,” he says.
Typical of the process, as he envisions it, is the way The Messenger came about. It is based on a book by Roberta Golub, a local donor to Dramaworks, whose mother, Georgia Gabor, was a Holocaust survivor.
“I was fascinated by her life,” recalls Hayes. “I said to Jenny, ‘Let’s find a play here, because this life is fascinating.’”
“I think he had me in his head because of what had gone down with ‘As I See It,’ and he knew I was a lady playwright who likes to write stories about interesting women. A Holocaust play was never on my bucket list, but I said let me dig around and see what I can find,” Davis explains. “And as I dug more into Georgia’s story, and I learned how much more there was to it than simply those years that she’d been in Budapest during the Holocaust, I was like, ‘Oh, man, there’s a lot here.’ Her story connects with so many other things that we have grappled with, that we’re still grappling with, and these other characters started to pop out of those other pieces of her story.”
Following a successful reading of The Messenger in January’s new play festival, Hayes began thinking of offering Davis the playwriting residency.
Why Davis? “It’s mostly about her skill, and we have an excellent rapport, a mutual trust. She truly understands that art is a collaborative process.”
Davis says she was surprised when the idea of joining the staff of Dramaworks came up. “You don’t really look around for a place where you can be a playwright in residence, because it’s not like those things exist everywhere. I wasn’t looking for it, but I think every artist is always interested in an artistic home.”
Still, she had questions about what Hayes had in mind. “Because being a playwright in residence can mean a lot of different things in a lot of places. OK, am I on the hook to write you a new play every year? How much do you need me there? What if I write a play and you don’t like it?
“But then we just talked more about it, and as I heard what he was envisioning, it felt good,” Davis reports. “He said there will always be a commission where we would agree together on what the next play would be. So it’s going to be a story that he’s interested in telling and feels it has a place on the Dramaworks stage, and it’s going to be a play that I feel like I can add something to.”
“Recently I pitched an idea to her about Abigail Adams, who I think is one of the greatest Americans that ever lived,” says Hayes. “And she went home and did research. Within a week she came to me with an idea of what she thinks it could be. So we’re good about getting each other excited.”
As to how Dramaworks evaluates its playwright program, Hayes says, “If we continue what we’ve been doing, cranking out a new play every two to three years, I think that’s success. And the pie in the sky is if something eventually gets transferred north.”
The role of the resident playwright in reaching that goal is still evolving, adds Davis. “One of the things we agreed to is we will keep on figuring that out as we go. Because they’re new to having a resident playwright and I’m new to being one.”