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Playwright alums dominate national drama scene

Brown's playwriting program stole the show. According to the October 2009 issue of American Theatre Magazine, it was a dramatic victory — Brown alums wrote four out of the five top-produced plays in the country.

Stephen Karam '02, author of "Speech and Debate," which shared second place with two other plays, said he was inspired by a speech given at his freshman convocation by then-Professor of Literary Arts Paula Vogel, who headed the playwriting program for more than two decades.

"I felt like, ‘This is getting off to a good start,' to have my favorite playwright welcoming me to Brown," he said.

According to Karam, he wasn't a "stand-out theatrical star" while he was an undergraduate. Production Workshop, the student-run theater group, rejected his first two works, he said. However, the success of "Speech and Debate" is not debatable — after a great run off-Broadway, it's being turned into a movie.

"When you write a hit play, life is fantastic," Karam said, laughing. "When you're struggling to create your next one, it's like every other terrible job. But, you feel compelled — it's what you love." 

Sarah Ruhl '97 MFA '01 also ranked second. Her play, "Dead Man's Cell Phone," has been produced eight times and will be staged by the Trinity Repertory Company this February. Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Erik Ehn said Ruhl "writes works marked with intellectual curiosity and global sophistication."

"Sarah is a model of the contemporary experimental writer," Ehn, who is also the newly appointed director of the graduate playwriting program, said. "She is able to work with a range of styles and a variety of venues."

Ehn also said Vogel was one of the key factors to the program's success. "She put her full heart and soul into constructing this program," he said. "We are operating in the house she built."

Brown's liberal arts education and "student-centered environment" created an ideal place for innovation and adventurousness, he said. "We accept students who are already outside the box, and we try to keep them outside boxes while they're here."

For Rachel Jendrzejewski GS, the program's freedom makes it unique. Students only have to take two or three classes, leaving them with a lot of time to write. "You are encouraged to find your own voice — whatever you're interested in following," she said.

Jendrzejewski added that Ehn wants them to approach and explore social issues through theater. He includes readings on events currently happening all over the world to get them thinking about the reality around them, she said.

"Erik wants to make sure we are actually engaging with the outside world," said Mallery Avidon GS. "He provides us with many opportunities to stay connected."

One of Ehn's initiatives includes a three-week trip to Rwanda and Uganda, in which students speak with artists who deal with their society's recovery from genocide. "The more theater can respond to the outside world, the more it can cause change," Avidon said.

By merging playwriting with social responsibility, Ehn said he plans to transmit to his students the power playwriting can have.

"I believe playwriting can save the world," Ehn said. By invigorating people's minds, bringing them together and creating a collective identity, playwrights can guide audiences to revisit and understand social issues, he said.

Mia Chung GS said Ehn also encourages a proactive inclusion of members of the Providence community in their writing. He has created new relationships with students from Rhode Island School of Design and promoted the use of spaces throughout the city, Chung said.

"He opened up Providence," Chung said.

Chung also said the fact that the program is fully funded is "a big plus" for students. Tuition is covered and each student receives a stipend for living allowance, she said. Their only responsibility is to teach and to learn.

"That's why you can really manage to focus on writing, writing and writing," she said. "Brown gives you the time to let your imagination loose and discover that there is no formula for playwriting."

"Brown creates a great environment for risk-taking," said Karam. "If I hadn't had Brown's support, I would have never made it to New York."


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