Fanning creative flames: Northampton collective draws on range of theater artists to help playwrights develop their work

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  • Rachel Hirsch, center, takes part in a Play Incubation Collective rehearsal for the staged reading of “Invitation to the Dance” by Amherst playwright Nina Dabek, at the Northhampton Center for the Arts. With Hirsch are Judith Fine, left, and Sarah Marcus. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rachel Hirsch, center, and Marty Bongfeldt, right, rehearse for the staged reading of “Invitation to the Dance” with Sarah Marcus. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jane Barish, left, as Stella, teaches a dance step to Judith Fine’s character, Leonore, during a rehearsal of the play “Invitation to the Dance” at the Northampton Center for the Arts. The play, by Nina Dabek of Amherst, has been workshopped by Play Incubation Collective. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Director Brianna Sloane leads a rehearsal for the staged reading of “Invitation to the Dance,” by Amherst playwright Nina Dabek, at the Northampton Center for the Arts. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judith Fine, left, as Leonore, and Jane Barish, as Stella, rehearse a scene from “Invitation to the Dance” at the Northampton Center for the Arts. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst playwright Nina Dabek has worked with members of the Play Incubation Collective to develop her work “Invitation to the Dance.” A staged reading of the play takes place July 15 at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst playwright Nina Dabek has worked with members of the Play Incubation Collective to develop her work “Invitation to the Dance.” A staged reading of the play takes place July 15 at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Director Brianna Sloane, center, leads a rehearsal for the staged reading of “Invitation to the Dance” at the Northampton Center for the Arts. At left is stage manager Nikki Beck; at right, actor Jane Barish. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aria “Lune” Acevedo worked earlier this year with Play Incubation Collective to develop her play “Return to Abya Yala,” which had public staged readings in Easthampton and Holyoke. CONTRIBUTED/CITYSPACE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2022 3:32:45 PM
Modified: 7/14/2022 3:30:00 PM

Art isn’t created in a vacuum, even for people who largely work alone such as writers or painters. Most artists look for some kind of feedback. But what might be the best way to receive it?

For members of the Play Incubation Collective (PIC), a Northampton group that helps playwrights develop their work, building a new support model in the theater world — one based on collaboration with actors, directors, stage managers and others in the business — is a key to giving playwrights a fresh way to realize their vision.

And the collective, which formed about three years ago, is also dedicated to working with local playwrights from underrepresented communities, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists, as well as playwrights whose work “challenges the status quo,” as Rachel F. Hirsch, one of PIC’s founders, puts it.

Ultimately, says Hirsch, the collective hopes to be an agent in building a strong network of local theater people and other multidisciplinary artists who together can help create independent theater in the Valley, getting past the kinds of barriers that have kept many productions confined to a more limited number of viewpoints and venues.

“Our goal is to meet playwrights on their terms,” Hirsch says. “What are you looking for? We want to help you answer that question… and we also want to help develop stories that are underrepresented in theater.”

The organization, which formed the year before the pandemic arrived, was forced to move to Zoom for much of the past two years but has now begun to present work publicly. On Friday, July 15 at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts at 33 Hawley Street, PIC will offer a staged reading of “Invitation to the Dance,” a play by Amherst writer Nina Dabek, followed by a conversation between audience members and the creative team behind the production.

Attendance is free but donations from audience members are welcome.

Hirsch, a Northampton singer and voiceover artist for audiobooks, co-founded PIC with another Northampton resident, Sarah Marcus, who like Hirsch has a background in theater. Marcus is also a co-producer of the Youth Performance Festival, an arts program for children and teens  staged at the Center for the Arts.

Through some trial and error, said Hirsch, she and Marcus developed their ideas for PIC and by the summer of 2019 “got together a group of actors just for the pleasure of reading new plays. And doing that made it clear there was a real interest [among local theater artists] of expanding on that idea.”

Dabek, who last year published “My Father’s Wife and My Daughter’s Emu,” a collection of linked, semi-autobiographical short stories, said her play also draws on some personal experience.

In “Invitation to the Dance,” set in Northampton in the 1980s, the central character, Naomi, has been invited to her older sister’s wedding. She plans to attend with her partner, Beth, which raises warning flags for Naomi’s mother: She doesn’t want Naomi to come out as a lesbian to her grandmother until after the wedding, which doesn’t sit well with Naomi.

Meanwhile, as play notes put it, Naomi’s grandmother “has her own plan for the wedding,” while the play as a whole examines “with humor and tenderness” the secrets inherent in families as well as “the possibility of change between three generations of women.”

Dabek says she was excited to hear about PIC in 2019 and submitted her play to the group for consideration. It received an initial private reading in January 2020, but further work was delayed by the pandemic until this year.

“Invitation to the Dance” now has a director, a stage manager, and five actors reading the characters’ parts, and Dabek says it’s been a revelation to hear the whole play voiced aloud.

“It’s so different, seeing a line on the printed page and then hearing it spoken, with emotion and nuance and texture,” she said. “And it’s been a great experience to work with skilled, talented actors. They’ve helped me come to think, ‘You know, this play isn’t bad.’”

Hirsch sees PIC being a bridge of sorts between a play’s beginning as a script and a full-fledged production.

“We’ve created a framework for giving playwrights the kind of feedback and support that they need, that’s designed to help them develop their ideas and determine what they want from their work,” she says.

Today the collective has 12 to 15 core members who take part in play development, Hirsch says, and a larger network of up to 50 theater artists — writers, actors, directors, dramaturgs, stage managers — to draw on for reviews. PIC works with full-length scripts and has a review committee that considers submissions, which to this point have all been from this region. However, PIC may expand to consider work from playwrights living within 100 miles, Hirsch says.

And following some fundraising efforts, what started as an all-volunteer organization is now offering some paid work and honorariums for people who participate in reviews and presentations, with a flat rate of $20 an hour for all who are involved.

“We believe artists need to be paid for their work, but we want to make it as equitable as possible,” Hirsch says.

The organization also established a residency program this year, selecting Aria “Lune” Acevedo for its first member. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Acevedo is the author of “Return to Abya Yala,” a play that looks at issues of identity, the struggles of Indigenous peoples in the aftermath of colonization, ancestral lands and collective trauma.

A Hampshire College graduate, Acevedo says working with PIC was “a really good experience,” as the group helped her flesh out the early outlines of her play. PIC members also encouraged her to apply to “Pay It Forward,” a new support program for artists sponsored by CitySpace, the nonprofit group that manages Old Town Hall in Easthampton.

As a consequence, Acevedo and PIC members spent time this spring in The Blue Room, the performance space in the old Town Hall, working on the play and then doing a staged public reading.

“It was beautiful,” Acevedo said. “We had a lot of artists of color coming together in the space, which felt really good … I want to keep being a part of the network of theater artists Sarah and Rachel have brought together.”

PIC has also developed a “Salon” program, held quarterly, in which excerpts of four different plays are presented in public readings to give audiences a taste of the work and to introduce new theater artists to one another.

“Hopefully, now that we seem to be past the worst of the pandemic, we can keep growing,” Hirsch says.

For more information on PIC and the July 15 reading of “Invitation to the Dance,” visit playincubation.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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