Susan Apker and I had sandwiches at the Corner Café, and talked about Heller Theatre’s renewed focus on home grown writers and original work. Heller is putting its money where its mouth is, reaching out to local writers with both opportunities for production and financial remuneration.
FRANK: So Susan, talk a little about where this emphasis on original work comes from.
SUSAN: When we reinvented ourselves a few years ago, we wanted to go back to the roots of Heller Theatre, which did a lot more local, original works in its earlier incarnation. We decided we wanted to support local artists, and get back to producing full length plays written by Tulsa writers. We’ve obviously been doing the Shorts for a few years now. That had a predecessor in that there used to be a playwriting group that met and supported each other at Heller.
FRANK: Before my time.
SUSAN: Well, they produced short play evenings. And when that went away Heller started a nationwide full length play contest, which grew too big for its britches basically.
FRANK: We ended up getting hundreds of entries, no one had time to read them all.
SUSAN: So just after the move to Henthorne, we started up the Shorts Festival. So Heller has always supported new writers, we’re just trying to expand on that. Our five year plan is to add a full length original play every season, and to have a 50% original season every year. Which we actually have this year and will next year as well, with one full length original, Shorts, and two published plays. I’m hoping that down the road, if we’re able to start producing five plays a year, that two of them would be full length originals. That’s in the ten year plan.
FRANK: You’re actually paying your writers for the full length plays, yes?
SUSAN: As a writer myself I firmly believe that the way to support burgeoning artists is to give them remuneration. I really deplore the attitude you sometimes find in this town that, “We’re giving them the privilege of having their play produced.” That makes me crazy. No, they’re giving us the privilege of producing their plays, and I think it’s incumbent on us to treat them as professionals. Giving them some kind of remuneration. Whether it’s as much as we’d give a published playwright? That can be determined individually, but most of the time it is.
FRANK: Heller recently announced a playwright in residence program, and just last week picked the recipient of that award. This is the first time I’ve heard a group in Tulsa doing anything like that. Who was selected for that, and what were the considerations that led the board to choose him?
FRANK: What does the position involve?
SUSAN: In the fall he will be running a workshop for Tulsa writers who are interested, and in the Spring he will workshop his new play and we’ll produce it in May.
FRANK: Will he be directing it?
SUSAN: No, we’ll have someone else directing. We have several people with Heller that have experience in working with and developing new works.
FRANK: You also write, and have a history in creating new work, talk a little about how you started out writing plays.
SUSAN: About 7 or 8 years ago, a friend of mine and I started writing back and forth, showing each other our work. I started submitting what I’d written to playwriting festivals around the country, and some of the things I wrote started getting accepted. So that was very exciting. Then I started to go see some of them, and realized that getting accepted did not mean it was good. Or that the festival was good (laughs). So I continued to write and try to improve my writing. And now I’ve had plays produced from Hawaii to Canada. I’m hoping soon to start writing my first full length play. Well, actually I’ve written a full length play, but when I submitted it to Heller anonymously, it was described as “something akin to an afterschool special.” (laughs) So I just decided I didn’t need to admit that I wrote it! I’m just going to keep working.
FRANK: How many of your plays have been performed outside of Tulsa?
SUSAN: Four, I think. One that’s been performed half a dozen times around the country. It will have its Tulsa premiere in June, in the show with Dan.
FRANK: Switching back to Heller, you have an original play opening this weekend, Emile Adams’ I Wish You Actually Liked Me, and Other Familial Impossibilities. I’m curious, how did Emile’s play get chosen for production by Heller?
SUSAN: Several of the board members saw it produced last year and loved it, and said that we needed to give it a place where it can be done again. So we put it into the season.
FRANK: And how did you decide on Laura Skoch to direct?
SUSAN: Laura has experience in working with new work, quite a bit in New York. Particularly from an actor’s standpoint has worked lots of original works, working with writers who are just putting their plays together. We decided it would be a perfect match.
FRANK: I can see why. I was very impressed with Laura when I interviewed her and Emile. And this is being performed where?
SUSAN: It’s going to be at Henthorne. Four days, Thursday through Sunday, May 19-22. 7:30 Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 pm on Sunday.
FRANK: And how is it being back at Henthorne?
SUSAN: We love being back at Henthorne, we love working with Erin and Melissa. They’re very supportive of us, so it’s a great boon to be over there. We’re also looking at the Nightingale Theatre as possibly the permanent home for the Shorts Festival. It draws a different crowd, might be a better fit. We’re always happy working closely with John and the gang over there as well.
And speaking of the Shorts Festival, the winners were announced this week, and they are as follows:
Working Title--Charlie Water and Luke Thompson
The Electrician - Donny Bailey
Roommates - Tess Paden
Attention - David Blakely
Hawthorne Sisters, Three - Hunter Cates
Break A Leg - Daniel Hitzman
That Awkward Moment - Lindsey Lewis
The Shorts perform 15, 16, and 17 of July, at the Nightingale Theatre, Emile’s play this weekend, and David Blakely’s play next May. Good to see Heller encouraging local writers.
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