Kudos to MRT – an American Theatre that Actually Produces New Work
By Lila Rose Kaplan
When you walk into MRT, the lobby brims with paintings by local artists inspired by the current new play. You read that right. Current new play. Every play at MRT is a new play. Full stop. Ever since Sean Daniels became Artistic Director in 2014, MRT does all new plays all the time. In the last four years, they’ve done 28 plays (all new) and 14 (half!) have been world premieres. It makes me proud to call MRT one to my artistic homes. Sean and MRT don’t just believe in new plays. They do them.
I asked Sean about his vision for new work at MRT and he said, “It’s really a goal of ours to be the leader in new play production in the country, if not the world. We have an amazing audience that is hungry for new stories YEAR ROUND -- some of the most exciting artists working today call us home -- and we’re in the one state with socialized medicine -- really, we have the three things artists are looking for!” MRT is located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a 45-minute drive from Boston. Lowell is unmistakably New England with old mills, a rapid river, and a Dunkin' Donuts on every corner. Walking around Lowell, the history is palpable, but there’s also the sharp sense of reinvention in the air. Old factory buildings are transforming into restaurants and artists’ studios. MRT is part of this change. Under Sean’s guidance MRT has become a beloved local theatre with a national reputation for excellent new work.
John Gregorio and Karen MacDonald in Home of the Brave. Photo by Meghan Moore.
One of Sean’s first initiatives at MRT was starting a group called The Patriots, a network of artists associated with the theatre. The program is designed to benefit playwrights, directors, actors, designers, and others from across the theatre field, as well as enhance MRT’s network of collaborators. According to Sean, “We’re building a national theatre for our town and a local home for these national artists. As we talked to these artists -- we kept hearing ‘I’d love to just have a place to come write’, or ‘I’d love to be writing when other writers are there so we gather for dinner for each night and compare notes’, or ‘I’d love to just start with some designers and dream up a project’. This program aims to provide those generative opportunities. As we grow, and have more to offer, these will be the artists we reach out to first.”
Playwright Lauren Gunderson is an MRT Patriot and MRT has produced three of her plays. Next at MRT, she’s premiering The Heath. I asked Lauren why she loves working at MRT. She replied, “I adore Merrimack Rep. Sean has always been an advocate of mine but seeing him utilize the support, resources and community of MRT and combine it with his vision for a thriving, creative, agile center for new work and working playwrights is invigorating. He always leads with a YES which means any idea can find its validity and realization. Sean and the MRT family are just always game to invent and expand what "great theatre" means. Their quality of productions, the supportiveness of their audiences, and the nonstop love of new plays is a gift to the American theatre.”
Sean and I first connected over our mutual love of zany, heartfelt comedy. I was searching for a director for my farce Home of the Brave. I sent the play to Sean and he loved it. When Sean became Artistic Director at MRT, he chose Home of the Brave to close out his inaugural season. I was honored. He also invited me to be an MRT Patriot and invited me to think of MRT as a home. We had a ball in rehearsal for Home of the Brave. I’ve always believed comedy is the collision of improvisation and rigor. Sean’s rehearsal room is much the same. There is an openness, a space to collaborate and there’s also an underlying structure that keeps the show focused. Whether we were finding the emotional truth of a moment or debating the funniest way to hide behind a haystack, Sean’s light touch kept the play true to itself. As we went into previews, Sean asked me to write another comedy for MRT. My plays have always been funny, but Home of the Brave was my first full blown comedy, and I was eager to write more. The world doesn’t often ask women for comedies. I was blown away by Sean’s trust in my voice. The only thing he asked me for was a title. I suggested The Villains' Supper Club, and we were off. I had my next writing assignment and two years until we started rehearsal. Writing for a guaranteed production is a rarity. My writing grew tremendously as I created The Villains' Supper Club. I took bigger risks with form and content because I knew the play was going to happen. Sean’s faith in my voice was transformative for my writing.
Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik in The Making of a Great Moment. Photo by Meghan Moore.
Playwright and MRT Patriot Peter Sinn Nactrieb had a similar experience working at MRT on his play, The Making of a Great Moment. Peter shares, “Sean is fearless and/or delightfully reckless when it comes to his faith and love for new work and willingness to take risks and try new things on stage. Case in point, he committed to producing my play at his theater when it only existed as a rough plan to create a piece for two amazing actors we had worked with before. That was terrifying. AND motivating and galvanizing to know he had a core faith in the concept (and me) and that I was writing towards a full production. That fearlessness continues into rehearsal where Sean encourages his collaborators (and challenges himself) to keep experimenting, adjusting, and exploring. We are discovering and working all the way through opening night and beyond! Throughout, Sean maintains his calm, his sense of humor, his warmth, and respect and love for all of the collaborators in the room. Sean says ‘delightful’ a lot. That seems like an appropriate word.”
When I’m at MRT, I feel seen and valued as an artist. Playwriting can be a lonely business, and it’s rare to feel welcomed. It’s rare to feel at home. By starting the MRT Patriots and inviting theatre artists into MRT as a generative space, Sean is changing the tide. Playwright, Director, and MRT Patriot, christopher oscar peña shares his experience of working on an upcoming play, The Haunted Life, at MRT. “As artists, be it writers, directors, actors, etc., I think we are all constantly looking for a home -- and with that, someone who says, what are you working on? How can we support you? What’s the next thing? It’s hard to create when you constantly feel like no one cares, no one is waiting. But Sean has swept into my life and unlike a lot of AD’s, Sean is committed to the artist, and that is a long term commitment. Even though Sean has known my work as a playwright, our first official production was with me as a director. He entrusted me with the world premiere of a play he was adapting based on a Kerouac novel. Who ever thought that the first time a piece of Kerouac literature would ever be on stage would be helmed by a Latino artist? I certainly didn’t. Sean is a straight white guy, but he knows his job is to push the American theater forward and that often means taking bold risks. I am a bold risk. And it means that someone in the American theater is finally taking that risk.”
Lou Sumrall, Jacob York, Ashley Shamoon, Julia Brothers, Jessica Wortham, and Gail Rastorfer in Women in Jeporady! Photo by Meghan Moore.
Sean’s relentless optimism and genuine belief in those around him make MRT a wonderful place to work. He believes in his artists and his audiences and teaches us how to believe in each other. He gets it. He gets that artists and audiences both thrive when there is a visible commitment to them. Playwright and MRT Patriot Wendy McLeod just premiered Slow Food, a new comedy, at MRT in January. She comments, “Merrimack Rep is a theater that values comedy and they have built a willing, enthusiastic audience. I've now worked with Sean on two different plays and trust his comic instincts, his precision, and his vigilant awareness of the big picture. He trusts the material, and he trusts his actors.” I agree with Wendy. It‘s a joy to make new plays, especially new comedies at MRT. I’m working on a brand new comedy for MRT right now, and it delights me to write stage directions calling for a funny prop, a surprising costume, or an unexpected set piece because I know that Sean and MRT will knock it out of the park.
Sean’s sincere love of new work means he’s game for whatever is on the page. He believes in playwrights. When I ask Sean why he loves making new work at MRT, he reflects, “From introducing our audiences to the poetry of Vichet Chum, the rhythm of Idris Goodwin, the zaniness of Lila Rose Kaplan, and the charm of Lauren Gunderson -- it’s been a joy to continually be a home where artists can come and know that they will leave with a better play than they started with. We better plays by producing them.”
Banner: John Gregorio and Karen MacDonald in Home of the Brave, Kristen Mengelkoch in The Villains' Supper Club, and Daina Griffith, Brian Beacock, and Joel Van Liew in Slow Food. Photos by Meghan Moore.