In this Three Stages post, Stefan Lanfer explores his play An Education in Prudence, which will premiere in February (Feb 9-24, 2018), produced by Open Theatre Project at St. Johns Church in Jamaica Plain.
In February 2015, I was named a Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellow for early work on my new play, An Education in Prudence. At that point, I had been working on it for almost two years. I thought I was done writing, or at least very close. I was wrong. I hadn’t found the right partners yet. The work wasn’t nearly ready. Neither were the times. But now, as An Education in Prudence anticipates its world premiere, I offer this reflection on three critical phases of its journey.
An Education in Prudence was inspired by a true story of one of the first desegregation battles in the United States – in rural Connecticut in 1833. I grew up in Connecticut, but had never heard the story. Then, one day, it came looking for me. I was at an event for work. A stranger crossed the crowded room.
“Hi, I’m Beth,” she said. “I hear you’re a playwright.”
“I am,” I said, wondering who sent her my way, and how playwriting came up. “How can I help?”
She got right to it, “There’s a story that has gripped me since grad school I’ve always imagined on stage. Can we talk?”
“Sure,” I said.
Weeks later, we met over coffee. As I launched in with the writing advice I thought she wanted, Beth listened, asked questions, and took notes. But when, finally, I stopped talking, she explained she was no playwright. She was looking for one – one who would fall for this story as she had. In fact, she’d been looking for over a decade.
So, I started listening, asking questions, and taking notes. And, I fell for it.
Soon, I was consumed with research and writing. A few months later, I organized a cold (i.e., no rehearsal) reading of the first scenes at the Playwrights’ Platform. A tough love group of Boston-area writers, Platformers never pull punches about what’s working and what isn’t. My reading earned a few positive, encouraging words. It also got many blunt critiques. My confidence was rattled. Though Beth was ecstatic. And, the experience also gave me several new ideas. So, I kept going. By December 2013, I finished a complete draft, and started submitting it to theatres, festivals, and competitions – a dozen by February, two by May, three by August.
Over the next three years, the responses trickled in. All rejections. One theatre even insisted I “please refrain” from ever submitting again. I couldn’t resist firing back with The Art of Saying No, a post on the Playwrights’ Platform’s blog.
There were a few bright spots along the way. Sometimes, I’d submit a 10-page sample and be invited to send the whole script (before its eventual rejection). My most encouraging “No” came in an email from a Chicago theatre that began, “As an advocate and admirer of your work, it is with difficulty… [that we pass.]” In 2014, Theatre on Fire and Charlestown Working Theatre (whom I’d met through the Boston Theatre Marathon) co-produced a workshop and public reading. Then – an affirmation like no other – the Mass Cultural Council named me an Artist Fellow. The first thing I did with my Mass Cultural Council award was to hire a dramaturg (like a playwright coach) through Philadelphia-based PlayPenn. My dramaturg had more questions than answers. As I listened, my heart sank, realizing my finish line was still far away. Yet, on our last phone session, he also said, “You’ve come too far to stop now.” I felt he was right. I kept writing.
But, by Spring 2016, when my rejections numbered over 80, I started believing the time had come to swallow my pride, cut my losses, and move on. I set the script aside. I helped my sister-in-law write a commencement speech for her alma mater. When that went well, we started a new project – a screenplay.
But then, I went to the Playwrights’ Platform’s Annual Festival of New Plays. Entering the theatre, I spotted George Smart, who had been the group’s President before convincing me to take on that role. I crossed the crowded room to say hi. George introduced me to Dustin Bell, founder of Open Theatre Project. “By the way,” asked George, “are you still working on that play?”
When I said I was, Dustin asked a few questions, and to send him the script. Two weeks later, he wrote me with words I’d never stopped hoping for, but had long since ceased to expect: “We’d like to produce this.”
“And whatever you need,” he added, “Whatever this play needs, Open Theatre Project is here for you.”
I was mystified.
More than the promise of an actual production, Dustin’s offer translated into a rich and productive collaboration stretching over the next two years, including three table readings, a sold-out public reading, and the opportunity to work with amazingly talented and generous artists. Some joined for one reading only. Others have gone the distance with us. Our incredible director, Pascale Florestal, and spectacular dramaturg, Phaedra Scott, both came on last summer – bringing critical and timely questions and coaching that got me over the finish line.
The whole OTP team helped me find hope again in this project. More significantly, they helped me find the play I never could have written on my own. At our first table reading, for example, an actor named Maya helped me realize I’d spent years focused on the wrong hero (a story I shared on OTP’s blog). And, as the times have taken one distressing turn after another, this team helped me find the hope that can only be found, if we look together into history’s cracks.
Images: promotional image for AN EDUCATION IN PRUDENCE, written by Stefan Lanfer; Stefan Lanfer with his children at a Massachusetts State House celebration of 2015 Artist Fellowship awardees; Open Theatre Project’s table reading of AN EDUCATION IN PRUDENCE.