Playwright, Citizen, Educator
by Emily Morse
Lucy Thurber at The New School
“[S]he that would be a leader must be a bridge.”
There are few people in the world with whom I would rather spend a Saturday afternoon than Lucy Thurber. She arrived at New Dramatists, an artistic home and laboratory for playwrights where Lucy was in-residence from 2005 – 12, eager to talk about her new appointment as the head of the graduate playwriting division at the New School. We discussed her new position and how it contributes to her vision of art, education, and social justice, as well as how it continues in the same vein with what she’s already accomplished as an artist and communitarian.
“For me, things grow organically out of necessity,” she shared. “I love teaching and have never seen it as separate from my playwriting.” While they are different formats, she explained that she sees an educational environment and theater as emerging from the same impulse. “My access to education has given me the same wonder and opportunity that I feel in the theater. Both are safe places and places of real luxury—defined as time and space, the ability to make choices, read good books, have good conversations, and maybe get sushi nearby.” She asserted that teaching feeds into her playwriting, and vice versa.
In 2012, Lucy founded the Middle Voice, which is now the apprentice company of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Middle Voice is a collective of young actors, directors, designers, and playwrights from diverse backgrounds, many of whom graduated from the Youth Company at MCC Theater, an after-school program for New York City public high school students who might not otherwise have access to after-school theater programs. The head of the playwriting division at MCC’s Youth Company for many years? None other than Lucy Thurber. Things grow organically out of necessity. Lucy saw a need in the lives of these young, talented kids, no longer of high school age, who were 100% committed to growing as theater artists, but not necessarily interested in college or grad school; they just wanted to work. Lucy brought these young people in contact with other young artists she admired, college graduates and some folks in grad school, all from very different backgrounds, and created a truly diverse group of people working together to make art. And voilà, Middle Voice. A gap was filled.
Lucy fundamentally understood the impulse to learn experientially. She, herself, didn’t go to graduate school. As a young artist, she found that she functioned better when she was able to apprentice herself in a variety of situations simultaneously, gaining exposure to different people with different ways of doing things. She shared (and continues to share) a profound connection with the members of Middle Voice, finding common ground in this way of learning and doing.
So how did she arrive at the New School? After teaching all over New York and beyond, at both high school and college level for many years, she started teaching one class in screenwriting at the New School three years ago. She liked it. It was the first place she’d taught where the emphasis of the program was collaborative learning—within and across all art forms. She let them know that she was looking for a place to make a teaching home, and it worked out that a position opened up and they offered it to her.
Her entrance into the Academy does not come without complicated feelings. The doors of elite institutions aren’t always open to all. That being said, they do employ a lot of talented playwrights, directors, and artists, and Lucy shared her feeling that it’s necessary in any young artist’s life to find three to five years where they can concentrate on figuring out how they sound, and determine what they need. Even the programs that take away the burden of tuition face issues of class and accessibility, but she felt that, despite the complications, taking on this position at the New School meant that she could contribute to young writers and young artists by encouraging kindness and collaboration, and teaching that good citizenship makes good art.
While her teaching method is adaptable for age and experience, the way she teaches the teenagers at MCC is essentially the same way she teaches at a grad school level. She related her belief that art, theater, and education all require the same capacities: a desire to look at yourself, honesty, bravery, love, and a need to communicate. For her, each of these realms also requires good citizenship. Lucy teaches by example. She is an artist citizen who feels genuinely responsible for herself and those around her. She feels responsible for making the world a better place, and believes we can do that in collective environments where we have to face and talk to each other about difficult things, including love or being gentle, which can require as much bravery as talking about something ugly or violent. Her deep belief in the idea of mentorship is rooted in her responsibility to give back to her community, or rather the multiple communities in which she sees herself. This resonated further when I learned that one of the basic founding values of the New School was citizenship.
For Lucy, the intersection of art, social justice, teaching, and mentorship is a mission, and I was curious about what precipitates the shifts between those activities. Again, she tells me, it grows out of necessity; she works from a larger concept. In terms of art, take the Hilltown Plays, which is a five play cycle. Those plays started with her desire to write about what it’s like to be a girl coming out in this world. She wanted to write about sexuality, about class, and about rural white America. She finished one play and felt that it didn’t capture everything she had to say, so she wrote another play. That kept going until she got to five. Only at that point did she feel in this particular arena she had said everything she needed to say about this subject. The same thing happened with The Insurgents—a play that is part of a trilogy that includes Monstrosity and a play called Dillingham City, which hasn’t yet been produced. The Insurgents is the final play, and the pièce de résistance. Her playwriting work evolves like that, and, interestingly enough, so has her work as an educator. Starting with her work with high schoolers; reaching a point where their opportunities were evaporating; collaborating with them to build a need-based theater company in support of their artistic and professional development while also influencing students at a college level, and now being in charge of the playwriting division at the New School. Based on what isn’t available, Lucy has created availability by defining and redefining the terms of education engagement throughout.
Coupled with theater, education is Lucy’s great love. It was her transport from a very complicated, beautiful, dark, and dangerous world to a world that had those qualities too, but was filled with a lot more opportunity. She loves to be around places of higher learning, and also felt that it was here that she could give back to people who were coming from her kind of background.
Lucy has built her work and her community on a sense of abundance: sharing the wealth of opportunity, and she feels this new position is a continuation of that. Yet there are practicalities. These types of programs are selective in part because there are not enough resources to allow wide-open access. I was very curious about how she reconciles that. In her new position, I wondered, what influence can she have in terms of how people have access?
Lucy responded that she believes the future of the American theater is about building bridges between visible institutions and less visible populations, communities, and locations. Driven by the desire to make the invisible visible, Lucy’s vision is that the structures all connect. You can have great theater going on in a place that might not be visible to the national scene, and she wants to be in as many of those places as possible. Her being at the New School means that if it’s right for some of the folks she’s encountering in underserved communities, she can build a bridge for them to the New School. Obviously, any grad school is an elite institution, a place everyone expects to be visible in some way. But with Lucy there, because she remains a committed presence in many less visible locales, the students at the New School will have access to places beyond their elite walls, and people in those places will in turn have access to the New School.
Lucy’s long-term aspiration is to continue working along the lines of what she’s currently building in Western Massachusetts with Laura Savia and Mandy Greenfield. The Williamstown Theatre Festival—a prestigious, nationally known organization—has partnered with great community groups including veterans organizations, community colleges, after-school programs, and an elders group. They spend a year meeting together, and out of those relationships build a show that is produced annually at Williamstown, performed by a company of equal parts local folks and professional actors. “Here you have visible theater artists walking into a community college in Pittsfield, MA, and that’s what Art can do because it doesn’t recognize boundaries, elitism, structure, visibility in that way,” Lucy stated. It’s their own version of Public Works, a program of the Public Theater in New York, or Cornerstone in Los Angeles, among others. It’s not a new idea, but it has been gaining more traction in the American theater. This model creates opportunities for homegrown artists to be visible; to learn and grow where they are, and perhaps changes the balance of power in terms of how artists and audiences alike get access.
Building bridges of visibility benefits all. Last summer, also at Williamstown, the WTF apprentices and Middle Voice company members were able to connect through Lucy as conduit. From these connections, independently of Lucy, relationships were able to grow and take on lives of their own. Those relationships are expanding as the individuals involved share their experience of citizenship and learn to make art together.
Lucy reflected on Middle Voice and the way this group of young artists takes care of each other as artists: by telling each other the truth, and through their commitment to a shared work ethic. It is clear that mentoring them fills Lucy with humble pride. In creating Middle Voice, she seized an opportunity to build capacity, and it has now taken on a life of its own. Further, she mused, “…the best part of it is that that’s them. It’s not about me. It’s about them.” A good teacher creates an opportunity or holds space or time for students to claim themselves and each other. By working together, the heavy lifting is made lighter.
“If I am existing in the world in this way, then the world responds in kind, and provides me with what’s necessary,” Lucy told me, “and then I grow and change in response to that.” She then quoted her great friend and fellow playwright Adam Bock, who said that life is so beautiful all the time because we’re always aware at every moment that we’re also saying goodbye. “That to me is theater…that’s what theater is,” Lucy explained. “As a species, it’s a genetic imperative that we get together in groups and tell each other stories. We learn through stories so we can see ourselves, create and explain our existence. Theater is my church. You can’t always give each other answers, but you can carry the burden together, ask the questions together, have conversations, be ugly or beautiful together.” Lucy’s goals for her new leadership role? “I would like to see this spread throughout the New School, and into the elite programs. I would also like to make the invisible visible.”
EMILY MORSE is the Artistic Director of New Dramatists, and fan of Lucy Thurber.