Playwrights retreat to develop new works

Jay Handelman
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, author of "I Am My Own Wife" and several Broadway musicals, is spending two weeks working on new projects in a cottage at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key. [Hermitage photo / Michael Kemp]

Two of the country’s most prominent playwrights are looking forward to turning off their phones, disconnecting from computers and connecting with their latest work during residencies at the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the one-person show “I Am My Own Wife,” and the book writer of such musicals as “Grey Gardens” and the recent “War Paint," has been working on new projects for a few days on Manasota Key. And he will be joined this week by actress, director and playwright Regina Taylor, best known for her play “Crowns,” who is juggling numerous commissions for new works.

Wright, the president of the Dramatists Guild, calls himself an “habitual offender” of several different artist retreats around the country and said they are an important part of the creative process.

“It shuts out all the white noise that surrounds us and allows our work to take center stage. There’s an absence of media. No televisions or other distractions,” he said during an interview that briefly interrupted his work.

“The most interesting thing to do in your cottage is to pursue your own work,” he said. “And you know other artists are here working, so you’re similarly inspired. There’s a sense of productivity that is sort of innate and it reminds you that in the face of cuts to the arts and the decline in funding and the loss of arts coverage in local papers, that our culture still values the arts.”

Taylor said she’s looking forward to that “feeling of retreat, of sequestering, of being able to disconnect in a way from day-to-day cellphones and internet and to have time to sit, to restore, to breathe deeply and to think deeply on these projects."

Their time is mostly their own over the six weeks that they get to spend in the historic beachfront cottages over the next two years (usually two weeks at a time), but they are required to do two public programs during their residencies.

On Monday, Wright will read an essay he wrote on “The Play That Saved My Life,” about the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “It’s about the first time I encountered their work. And because its artistic director (Charles Ludlam) died very young of HIV and AIDS, it’s also a meditation on art and loss.”

The program at 5 p.m. Monday at Florida Studio Theatre will be followed by a conversation with the audience.

Taylor, who best known as the star of the beloved TV series “I’ll Fly Away,” also will talk about her career and read from a short play she wrote called “Resistance” on Dec. 17 at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. The story is about a young African-American girl who helped to integrate an elementary school in the 1960s and who grew up with the idea of resistance and how she relates to that now as a grown woman.

Taylor said that resistance is a recurring theme in several plays she has been working on this year, including “A Seat at the Table,” about the voting rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer, who fought to end the segregation of the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Another play, “Bread,” which takes place as the Obamas are leaving the White House, is about a couple expecting their second son. The baby is overdue “and the wife is afraid to push, to bring this child into this very unpredictable world. This fear of losing ground that we stand on,” she said.

Taylor, who has written more than 15 plays, said last year’s presidential election has spurred her thinking in several new works about “where we are right now. As an artist, you wonder where is the common ground, where to dig in your heels, what changes need to happen and how do we move forward in terms of activism. It keeps coming back to resistance.”

She also has been working on revisions to her first major hit, “Crowns,” putting more focus on one of the central figures, a young girl from Chicago who is set to the South to live with her grandmother after her brother is fatally shot in Brooklyn. The girl is introduced to a variety of church ladies who share stories about the hats they wear on Sunday mornings.

Wright said playwriting “remains an incredibly challenging profession.” For every major success, a writer may produce many other plays that get seen at numerous theaters but don’t provide much in the way of income.

“I’ve had the great fortune to have five plays make it all the way to Broadway, some for a long time and some for a short while,” he said. But having a show on Broadway is not a guarantee of financial rewards. “Sometimes you can lose money on productions because commission money goes only so far.”

Taylor, who has received many commissions for new works and takes writing breaks on occasion for acting roles, talks about the ephemeral quality of theater.

“I feel blessed to have these productions, to have these moments, where I can claim my voice and share these conversations and talk about these questions that are on my mind, to spur conversations and bring communities together that might not share space otherwise,” she said. 


Playwright Doug Wright will read from “The Play That Saved My Life” at 5 p.m. Dec. 11 at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 S. palm Ave., Sarasota. Regina Taylor will read her piece “Resistance” at 5 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Westcoast Black Theatre, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Both programs wil be followed by conversations with the writers. The events are free but reservations are required. For more information: 941-475-2098, Ext. 8 or email