By Christina Wood
Florida Atlantic University’s Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters recently announced the establishment of the Myrna Gordon Skurnick Theatre Lab Playwriting Program and Creative Writing MFA Fellows.
Since its founding in 2015, Theatre Lab, the resident professional company of FAU, has pursued its mission to inspire, develop and produce new plays, audiences and artists by presenting exciting new work in the theater as well as offering workshops and conversations with leading playwrights and theater artists.
Skurnick’s gift will allow Theatre Lab to build on the foundation they have laid down by creating a playwriting program that will bring more leading playwrights to the Boca Raton campus and by establishing a competitive Creative Writing MFA fellowship. The gift will also enable Theatre Lab to commission new work.
Matt Stabile, Theatre Lab’s artistic director, is, of course, delighted, grateful and very excited. “Commissioning playwrights is hugely important,” he says.
The time a playwright spends getting words down on paper is just the beginning, these days. As Stabile explains, a play must travel a long and arduous path as it makes its way from the mind of a playwright to the stage. And, in all likelihood, it will be years before the playwright makes a dime off the work.
“That’s why this program is so essential and so needed,” he says. “We are giving playwrights a place to come and work on their craft and do their work while also inspiring the minds of the future artists in the industry.”
Skurnick’s gift also allows Theatre Lab to establish a playwriting program that will bring prominent playwrights to FAU to work closely with students, present community workshops and teach as guest instructors. The visits may also include master classes and public talks as well as the creation of newly commissioned work.
Developing new work is not only important in terms of creating the theater classics of tomorrow, but is also critical to the theater community’s efforts to enhance diversity and address inequity in its ranks. “By investing in new plays and investing in new voices and in new stories, you are actually able to tell a more in-depth story of the American experience because you are not leaving anybody out. Or at least that’s the goal,” Stabile says.
The Creative Writing MFA Fellowships, the third component of the gift, will provide funding for two graduate students in the Creative Writing Department at FAU who will work with Theatre Lab’s busy education department.
“I am thrilled to be able to support playwriting for students at FAU in such a unique way. Growing up in London I was, from the age of four, taken by my parents to the movies and the theater,” Skurnick said in a statement. “When I turned 14, I was allowed to ride the bus by myself to the West End. So, from then on, my best girlfriend and I went every Saturday to a matinee sitting up in the so-called ‘gods,’ and, for a couple of shillings, saw every play running!”
Skurnick’s generosity will also create an endowment that will fund the collaborative initiative at Theatre Lab in perpetuity. To honor this commitment to the arts, FAU will honor the Boca Raton resident, who loves to write, by naming a dedicated space outside the theater’s home the “Myrna Gordon Skurnick Writing Nest at Theatre Lab.”
A private event May 5 will celebrate Skurnick’s gift. Stabile then hopes to bring in the first playwrights under the new program in the fall.
“Theatre Lab continues to be an important part of the American theater ecosystem, and we are delighted to see this type of support for the important work they are doing to strengthen and sustain theater-makers at FAU,” says Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network, which includes 125 member theaters.
Like theaters all across the country, Theatre Lab closed its doors last March due to the pandemic. “This pause for a year, has actually enabled us to do some things – and I feel super-fortunate saying this, I know it’s not the same for all companies – but I think we’re coming out of this in a better position than we went into it,” Stabile says.
In fact, at a time when many arts organizations are grateful just to get by, Theatre Lab is thriving.
The company just released its first digital production – Ich Bin Ein Berliner, by Vanessa Garcia, an audio play commissioned specifically for audiences that engage with theater virtually. The show, which draws on Garcia’s memory of watching the fall of the Berlin Wall from her fifth-grade classroom, tells an engaging and entertaining story that is both deeply personal yet also universal. It is available for streaming through May 23.
An in-person summer reading series is now in the planning stages, Stabile says. And, in September, Theatre Lab will return to full-length live performances with the biggest show in the company’s history – the Heckscher Theatre for Families production of The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons, by Rachel Teagle, which will feature a mastodon puppet that is 9 ½ feet tall, 12 feet long and takes three puppeteers to operate.