New York’s Lark theatre laboratory: ‘We ask writers for raw, personal work. We don’t care if it’s good’
It’s all about the work for New York’s Lark theatre laboratory, which has helped develop Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and the careers of leading writers. Nicole Serratore finds out how it became one of US theatre’s top launch pads
The Lark theatre laboratory in New York sees playwrights as “society’s truth tellers” and its role as giving those writers the freedom to create whether through funding, space to work and industry contacts. At the same time, the Lark seeks to tackle the inequities it sees in theatre.
The group provides what it calls “transformative support” driven by the writers’ needs – one fellowship provides $50,000 over two years to help a playwright get an adventurous play to the stage, another gives a $15,000 cash award as well as $3,000 health insurance reimbursement for a year.
Artistic director John Clinton Eisner says: “We wanted our theatre to be more engaging of young people and more exciting; more international and intercultural, built on idiosyncratic visions, and not on what seemed to be a rising conviction that art could be made using certain models of efficiency.”
Along with American Conservatory Theater classmate John Heath Stewart and stage designer Larry Gruber, Eisner felt driven to create the Lark in 1994 because of a frustration around the “pervasively corporate approach to making theatre that pushed people into making plays with small casts and unit sets”. He adds: “We were young and wanted to play. We were tired of acting in plays in regional theatres where directors arrived with the same playbook that had worked in five other cities.”
It staged productions in its first year but the founders began to feel that new plays needed more nurturing, so they abandoned productions in favour of exploring what play-development processes served playwrights best.
After a brief stint teaching Shakespeare in schools, the Lark produced new work Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. It supported playwright Sinan Unel’s work Pera Palas, a play that followed stories across three timelines each set within a room of Istanbul’s Pera Palas hotel, which ran Off-Broadway in the late 1990s and then, in 2000, at the Gate in London.
“What we learned working on Sinan’s play, and several others at that time, completely changed our DNA,” Eisner says. “We learned that the pressure of rushing to production forced us to take safer approaches and to marginalise the most important visionary of all, the writer.” After Pera Palas, the Lark changed its approach. “We became what I like to call a ‘rehearsal company’. We would be a play lab, a think tank for theatre.”
Now, with a team of 14 and financial support from donors such as the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and the Shubert Foundation, the Lark has become one of the leading launch pads for new plays in the US. It sees its role as trying to ‘fill gaps’ in theatre, with a focus on underrepresented groups, with some of its work involving hosting international exchanges on cross-cultural work and translating play texts.
Director of artistic programmes Lloyd Suh, a playwright himself, says by bringing different writers together, the Lark can create “a cross-section of American theatrical writing that puts people from all different perspectives, all different career levels, multiple aesthetics, various communities, in conversation with each other so that they can collectively serve to illuminate and investigate the most important issues of our time”.
In 2017-18, the Lark worked with 632 artists, including 79 playwrights. Through the years, playwrights including David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Lynn Nottage, Anna Ziegler, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Samuel D Hunter and Jackie Sibblies Drury have worked with the group. Plays such as Describe the Night, Guards at the Taj, The Mountaintop, and The Whale spent development time there, as well as Pulitzer prize-winners Sweat (2017) and Cost of Living (2018).
One way the Lark finds talent is through open submission. Playwrights from anywhere in the world can submit with no fee and between five and seven are selected for the annual Playwrights’ Week, a seven-day festival that leads to free public readings. The playwright can identify the aims of a work and then, with 10 hours of rehearsal, get their play in front of an audience. This year, the Lark received almost 1,250 submissions for places in the festival.
Other playwrights come to the Lark through fellowship applications and Suh acknowledges the difference made by the substantial funds given to fellows: “We’re changing their life and we’re asking them to change their lives to prioritise their writing.” Playwrights also join the Lark’s programmes by invitation and nomination. There is flexibility to selection so it can be responsive to the under-served needs of the theatre world as it changes.
Writers are encouraged to draw up personal goals and experimentation is encouraged, Suh says. “We ask writers to just do their most raw, vulnerable, ambitious, personal work. We don’t care if it’s good. We want it to be useful [to the writer], because sometimes trying something that doesn’t work is the best thing to happen.”
The Lark does not see its role as gauging the commercial potential of its plays, with production budgets and cast sizes deemed irrelevant. Suh says this is the place a playwright can bring “the loftiest things they can imagine doing” and develop it.
Profile: The Lark
Number of employees
14 staff and five seasonal apprentices.
Number of playwrights worked with
79 in the 2017-18 season.
Productions and readings (2017-18)
96 productions of Lark-developed plays. 120 readings (89 roundtable readings and 31 public readings).
Audience figures (2017-18)
Number of audience members at Lark-developed productions across 46 cities: 274,911. At public readings: 2,001. Number of virtual audience members: 2,685. Number of roundtable observers: 49.
Artists worked with include
Katori Hall, David Henry Hwang, CA Johnson, Rajiv Joseph, Kimber Lee, Tim Lord, Donja R Love, Martyna Majok, Dominique Morisseau, Liza Jessie Peterson, Christina Quintana, Andrea Thome, Doug Wright, Lauren Yee.
Lark is a community-supported organisation. Leadership support for it comes from donors including: Rita Goldberg, Clinton O Mayer III, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Howard Gilman Foundation, Acton Family Giving, the Morris and Alma Shapiro Fund, the Shubert Foundation.
The services available to writers through the Lark might include “money, time, access to collaborators, conversation, and career advice”. It may engage in some matchmaking between playwrights and directors or simply give them a quiet dedicated room to write in.
“Because all writers have very different needs from each other, the suite of our programming is really intentionally broad and flexible,” Suh says. The most basic programme it offers is its ‘roundtable’, which Suh calls the “DNA of the organisation”. There, writers can bring in a script draft at any point in its process just to hear it read cold by actors. It puts on between 80 and 100 roundtables per year. The Lark also offers ‘studio retreats’, which are short workshops with a cast culminating in a free public reading.
Other initiatives include ‘barebones’ where the playwright, director and cast “pretend they are in a production rehearsal process without tech or building a set”. With three weeks of rehearsal, they explore what that production might look like and what challenges or issues would arise. Producing theatres sometimes attend these and can see for themselves how a play in its early stages could work.
In addition, there are international playwright exchanges. “We’re putting US-based writers in different parts of the world, and bringing writers from other parts of the world here, to engage in conversations around meaning, cultural context, value and impact,” says Suh.
Currently, playwrights Lucy Thurber, Rajiv Joseph and Martyna Majok are in Romania having their plays translated in workshops with Romanian and Hungarian graduate students.
Not having to worry about a season of productions or ticket sales, means the Lark can use its resources to fundamentally change what kind of work is being made and who is making it. For instance, in partnership with the theatre company the Apothetae, it established a fellowship for a disabled writer to generate a new play to “challenge perceptions of the disabled experience”.
Most importantly, the programmes at the Lark are not fixed. “We use the word ‘process’ a lot,” Suh says. “Our programming changes every year because of that, because we’re constantly self-reflecting on how are we doing, what can we do better, what should we try to do differently.”
The result is that even without an eye on commercial prospects, 155 Lark-developed plays were staged in 261 productions over the past three years.
“Over our lifetime, our mission has remained consistent, even as we have adapted programmes to meet new needs,” Eisner adds. “We are actively creating strategies for bringing in the next wave of marginalised voices and audiences. Above all, we are building our staff and board to make sure the Lark can be around for a long time, as the space we create is rare and, we believe, important.”