Faculty Focus: Volansky At The Tonys
As Oslo producer André Bishop reminded the theater community gathered for the 71st Tony awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall on June 11, “We are in a Golden Age of American playwriting.”
Michele Volansky, Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre at Washington College who has been Conference Dramaturg and Associate Artistic Director with PlayPenn in Philadelphia since its inception in 2005, can attest to that. She and her PlayPenn colleagues – including 80 Philadelphia-based theater artists – read more than 800 scripts just last year. Among them was an early version of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award for Best Play; it was the fourth Rogers play that Volansky has helped bring to the stage. And she has taught them all at Washington College.
“At PlayPenn, we read every play blind,” says Volansky. “We never know who the playwrights are. And when we narrowed the selections down, one of them was not really complete; that play turned out to be Oslo by J.T. Rogers.”
Volansky had a suspicion, though, that the play about the back-channel talks, unlikely alliances, and quiet heroics that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians was the work of her friend and colleague, J.T. Rogers. “Few people write plays of such scope and depth and nuance.”
Pre-PlayPenn, Volansky first met Rogers when the Philadelphia Theater Company (where she served as Dramaturg/Literary Manager) produced his play White People. In 2005, Rogers’ play, The Overwhelming, was one of the first four plays developed by PlayPenn. That play went on to the National Theatre in London. In 2009, Rogers submitted a second work to PlayPenn, Blood and Gifts, which was produced by the Lincoln Center and the National Theatre in London.
The first reading of Oslo took four and a half hours, Volansky says. “Even so, people were totally captivated.” After the team whittled it down to three and a half hours, the play was scheduled to be produced at Lincoln Center. “We did another workshop in September, and by that time it was pretty clear that the play was going to have a life.”
Nominated for seven Tony Awards, Oslo opened last fall at a small Off-Broadway space, the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, then in April moved the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater, where it will run through the end of July. A new production will be staged at the National Theater in London in the fall, and audiences may soon be able to watch Oslo on the big screen; Rogers has been optioned to translate the play to film.
Volansky was in the audience when, in accepting the Tony, J.T. Rogers gave a shout-out to PlayPenn.
“That was huge,” she says. “The energy in the room was incredibly supportive. A lot of things don’t impress me, but going to the Tony Awards is kind of on your bucket list, if you are a theater person. James Earl Jones won the Lifetime Achievement Award, and there were a lot of celebrities there, but the cool thing is that there were also a lot of hardworking, long- serving theater people. It was great to celebrate theater at this particular moment in time, and to acknowledge that the plays we do have meaning in the larger cultural discourse.”