The Power of Original Voices: A New Generation of Artists Finds Success at Goodman Theatre

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Sandra Delgado in La Havana Madrid. Photo by Erik Scanlon.

Yasmina’s Necklace marks a “Goodman homecoming” for playwright Rohina Malik and director Ann Filmer—two artists who received early-career mentorship as part of the theater’s Playwrights Unit and Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship, respectively. These programs are among the Goodman’s myriad initiatives designed to help nurture new plays.

“As Chicago’s largest not-for-profit theater, we have a responsibility to our community to provide opportunities to artists who are building careers, developing their skills and looking to work in bigger spaces and reach larger audiences,” said Tanya Palmer, the Goodman’s director of new play development, who leads the Unit each season. Founded in 2010 as a new works commissioning program, the Playwrights Unit unites four Chicago-based writers each season for bi-monthly meetings in which they discuss their plays-in-process.

After 10 months of meetings, the plays written during the season are showcased in free staged readings for Goodman audiences. Malik was a member of the unit during its inaugural season, alongside Lisa Dillman, Laura Jacqmin and Seth Bockley (who later received a joint Jeff Award with Artistic Director Robert Falls for their stage adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666). Other Playwrights Unit alumni who have later had works presented on Goodman stages include Sandra Delgado (La Havana Madrid), Ike Holter (Lottery Day), Martín Zimmerman (The Solid Sand Below) and Andrew Hinderaker (The Magic Play).

“It’s a huge trust when a theater commissions a playwright; the Goodman’s investment in me really gave me more confidence in my writing,” Malik said of her time in the program, during which she wrote The Mecca Tales. That play, which follows a group of five Muslim women on the annual Hajj pilgrimage, will appear off-Broadway at the Voyage Theater Company and New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater Company this fall, following its Jeff Award-nominated 2015 premiere at Chicago Dramatists. “The Playwrights Unit workshops really helped me see what was working in my writing and what needed to be fixed,” Malik said, noting “it was such a joy” to see her play staged by Jeff Award-winning director Ron OJ Parson during the culmination of the program. Working with a group of fellow writers also provides a unique experience for playwrights, who often work in solidarity. “Everyone’s writing becomes stronger because of the collaboration in the room,” said Palmer. “We select a group of writers who are excited about the idea of collaborating, but who also have very different styles and approaches; this allows them to challenge and give each other feedback, but in a way that doesn’t place them in competition with each other. They’re all writing very different things and coming from different places.”

“We select a group of writers who are excited about the idea of collaborating, but who also have very different styles and approaches; this allows them to challenge and give each other feedback, but in a way that doesn’t place them in competition with each other.”

Though only one recipient is chosen for the Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship each year, they, too, are exposed to a number of collaborative opportunities during their time at the theater. Founded in 2000 in honor of the late associate artistic director, who was heralded for his role as a mentor at the Goodman and DePaul University, the program allows a rising Chicago director to assist on a Goodman production during the season they work. Its loose structure also allows the Fellow to utilize the many resources of the Goodman in ways they feel are most beneficial to them. “At the beginning of the year we sit down and say, ‘These are all the things that could happen, but what are you most interested in, what kind of experiences do you want to have? How can the Goodman help you meet your goals?” said Goodman Artistic Associate Steve Scott, who has worked closely with fellows since the program’s inception.

Some directors have chosen to work on New Stages, the Goodman’s annual festival of plays-in-process, while some directors (who often have not worked in spaces of the Goodman’s scale) chose to assist on larger productions in the Albert Theatre. Others have worked closely with Falls to observe the responsibilities involved with running a large theater company. “Young directors often don’t get to discuss with more experienced directors what the career of directing is like, how you establish yourself and what to expect as either a freelance director or an institutional director,” noted Scott.

“Being in rehearsals with Bob was so eye-opening,” Filmer recalled of assisting Falls on Rebecca Gilman’s Dollhouse during her fellowship. “I felt like an actual member of the Goodman artistic staff—from attending board meetings, assisting day to day on the needs of a production and just seeing the inner-workings of a large theater.” The following season, Filmer returned to direct three plays as part of the Goodman’s David Mamet Festival, and she credits the program with guiding her to found her own theater company, Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, of which she is artistic director. Former fellow Joanie Schultz (Venus in Fur) is also now the artistic director of Texas’ WaterTower Theatre, and this season will see the return of another Maggio alumnus when Vanessa Stalling directs the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Wolves on the Owen stage.

The two programs even converge, as a Maggio Fellow typically directs one work from the Playwrights Unit readings. And not only do the programs help champion the next generation of theater writers and directors, they also can shape the Goodman’s own future artistic vision. “The programs have become a very important training device for bringing talented young directors and writers to the Goodman and making them a part of our family,” said Scott. “But they also open our eyes to a lot of things. The artists bring in their own network of rising designers and actors, ideas about what kind of theater experiences they consider meaningful and what they think a theater like the Goodman can do for the community.”


Buy tickets and learn more about Yasmina’s Necklace here. Tickets start at just $10!