How Playwrights Horizons Became a Launchpad for Pulitzer-Winning Work

Interview   How Playwrights Horizons Became a Launchpad for Pulitzer-Winning Work
 
Artistic director Tim Sanford reveals the secret to the Off-Broadway theatre company’s success.
6163.Danai Gurira and Playwrights Horizons' Tim Sanford at the TCG Gala (photo by Jenny Anderson).jpg
Danai Gurira and Playwrights Horizons' Tim Sanford Jenny Anderson

Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, has been at the Off-Broadway institution for more than 30 years—but when he first walked through the organization’s doors in 1984, it was as a literary intern. He was also studying Proust at the time, and there’s an idea from the French writer that still guides him today: the notion that there are as many styles as there are artists. “A true artist has their own voice,” says Sanford. “The important thing is that the writer has their style that’s authentic to them. ... They have something to say. There’s a world that they’re seeing and they want to share their world with us.”

This philosophy is reflected each season in Playwrights Horizons’ eclectic programming. In Sanford’s own words: “There’s no house style.” The upcoming season is a slate of new plays that offers a spectrum of varying worlds: in Robert O’Hara’s Mankind, women are extinct; in Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, an army of pre-teen competitive dancers prepare for domination. Playwrights Horizons has produced everything from Annie Baker’s The Flick (which won the Pulitzer Prize for its singular manipulation of time and dialogue) to James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical Sunday in the Park with George (another Pulitzer Prize winner). The overlying principle guiding the artistic director and his staff is the very mission on which the company was founded in 1971: to nurture American writers.

Playwrights Horizons has always been and continues to be a writers’ theatre. What this means is that the organization remains one of the few to still accept unsolicited manuscripts. Sanford says that every play and musical that comes through his doors is read thoroughly by both he and his staff. It also means the theatre is committed to forging and maintaining solid relationships with its artists.

Thought the theatre has a reputation for nurturing new writers, Sanford is dedicated to playwrights and composers at all stages of their careers. “It’s about relationships,” says the artistic director. “It’s more fun to cultivate and encourage a writer than it is to reject a writer.” That support doesn’t only come in the form of a production; it’s also in the company’s New Works Lab initiative, as well as its robust commissioning program. Sanford recalls commissioning a then-unknown Sarah Ruhl early in her career; she has now been produced on three occasions at Playwrights.

Though he has helped launch the careers of countless writers, Sanford is reluctant to call himself a mentor. “I think I bring experience and passion and hopefully some insights,” he concedes. Thirty-three years of experience. And a bit of philosophy, too.

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