How Ensemble Studio Theatre Fosters the Next Generation of Award-Winning Writers

Interview   How Ensemble Studio Theatre Fosters the Next Generation of Award-Winning Writers
 
The Off-Broadway theatre first invested in writers like Annie Baker and Robert Askins.
William Carden
William Carden Marc J. Franklin

Ensemble Studio Theatre builds plays from the ground up, and for artistic director William Carden, the process—the readings, the workshops, the rehearsals—is just as important, if not more so, than the final production.

<i>The Flick </i>
Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten in The Flick Off-Broadway Joan Marcus

“I’m passionate about what you do to make a play work. There’s a process that involves how you work on a play that is really the heart of what we do,” says Carden, who has been at the helm for ten years. A key part of that process involves nurturing playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers, which the theatre does through Youngblood, a collective of emerging professional playwrights under the age of 30. The program is designed to take the pressure off young playwrights by allowing them the space to grow. Notable alumni include Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker (The Flick), Drama Desk nominee Clare Barron (You Got Older), Tony nominee Robert Askins (Hand to God), and Pulitzer Prize finalist Amy Herzog (4000 Miles). “You write to find your voice and to challenge yourself,” says Carden. “You write to become the writer you want to be.”

The group’s members are not only encouraged and guided through the writing process, they find a long-lasting community in their peers and collaborators, as well as further opportunities via EST’s other developmental initiatives. Because EST only produces the plays that have come through the theatre in some capacity, Carden says, “It’s like farm-to-table: We’ve grown all the ingredients.”

EST invests in its artists and their creative lives long-term. Each production is just as much about the artists as it is about the play itself. “That’s how you grow, from seeing your play in front of an audience,” says Carden. “If we can provide her or him with this opportunity, they will be a different artist.”

Mahira Kakkar and Babak Tafti in <i>Against the Hillside </i>
Mahira Kakkar and Babak Tafti in Against the Hillside Gerry Goodstein

Part of the theatre’s mission in helping its artists come of age is by also allowing them to take risks that may not be possible elsewhere. With a 74-seat capacity, the majority of the theatre’s budget is funded. It’s a structure that allows Carden to tell a young playwright like Sylvia Khoury, whose play Against the Hillside he directed on EST’s mainstage earlier this season, that, yes, it is possible to change the ending midway through rehearsals. “That’s why we produce at this level,” he says.

Part of Carden’s job, in preserving the company’s 50-year legacy, is ensuring that EST remains dedicated to the creative process. It also happens to be what Carden cares about most. As he says, “When you’re working on plays, you’re living in a state of discovery.”

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