The scene is a barely finished room in the basement of the Drake. Hot, close. A fan is running.
If it’s midsummer, this must be PlayPenn.
Through July 30 at the Theatre at the Drake, on the main stage and in the rehearsal spaces, the influential local theater incubator that hatched J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning Oslo is hosting its New Play Development Conference.
Selected from more than 800 applicants, six promising “conference playwrights” from across the country have brought their plays to Philadelphia for workshops with teams of actors, directors, dramaturges, and stage managers, all assembled by PlayPenn. In addition to Anthony, this year’s winners are Brent Askari of Portland, Maine; Christine Evans, an Australian playwright now in Washington, D.C.; C.A. Johnson of Queens, N.Y.; Carter W. Lewis of St. Louis, Mo.; and Jonathan Norton of Dallas, Texas.
PlayPenn’s playwrights get three intensive weeks to develop their plays. They started last week, stage the first of two public readings this week, go back to the drawing board to work and sweat some more, and do a second round of readings next week.
It’s an excellent value for theater lovers, a peek at exciting plays of the future. And for the teams developing the plays, the perspiration is part of the inspiration.
There was plenty of drama — in the script and in the room — at Thursday’s workshop for Anthony’s play.
“We are all here for the play, to figure out where the play wants to go,” director Tamilla Woodard said to the group. “What’s the story the play is most interested in telling? … You are really, really, really our collaborators.”
During a break, Anthony said: “It’s just amazing to be in a room with so many smart people. I’m learning so much so fast.”
“I know a lot of writers who have been at PlayPenn and a lot more who want to be at PlayPenn,” he said. “A few of my friends are jealous.”
House gets its first-round reading at 8 p.m. Thursday. The setting is the Taft State Hospital for the Negro Insane, established in 1934 in Taft, Okla., and one of seven such hospitals in a shameful network throughout the country. Anthony learned of it, and got the idea for the play, while reading Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
“One of the people in that book was sent to such a place as a teenager,” Anthony said, “and she died there. I started doing research, and the more I did, the more connections I saw between these hospitals, the race situation, and today’s prison-industrial complex and the incarceration of African American men.”
The team read through the play beginning to end, took a break, then began discussion.
Steven Wright plays Attius Grimes. Incarcerated for more than a decade, Attius works in the hospital’s wood shop making coffins. He has been castrated, which is considered to be one of the institution’s “successful treatments.”
Wright talked out loud to the workshop team about his character: “I feel I have no place in the world. At one time, back in the Jazz Age, I was living the life, but now, I’ve been subjected to so many of these ‘therapies,’ and I’m wary, scared.”
Then it was Woodard’s turn to observe. “Everyone seems to be drawn to Attius,” she said. “What is it about him? What draws these other people, such different people, to him?”
The youngest character in Anthony’s play is Madeleine, played by Jaden Moore. “She’s sheltered, has seen only a piece of the world,” Moore told the group. “She lost a piece of herself somewhere. She’s been told she ‘has the devil in her,’ and she believes this story of herself.”
Woodard interjects: “Let’s find the damage. What was her trouble, so much that her people could not keep her and had to send her here? Let’s work on that feeling of rising panic.”
The group turned frequently to the playwright for reaction, clarification, and background. He discussed the historical setting: “These places were basically dumping grounds for black folks, with very poor conditions and a lot of shuffling of inmates from crowded facilities to newer ones.”
Two days later, Anthony said by phone that he was energized: “I was up late again last night doing rewrites. We had another rehearsal today and worked through the previous day’s work. It’s like trying to collect water out of a river — a lot of ideas and things you want to change are in motion, and then you change some things and more things come up.”
Woodard, a professional director in New York, said she was “overjoyed” to be invited to PlayPenn this summer. “I want to seize those scraps of backstory that emerge from the dialogue, and challenge these wonderful actors to tease them out, see where they lead.”
What’s her goal? “That by the time of the first reading on Thursday, we are halfway to answering the questions we want to answer, and that Terence is hopeful and encouraged.”
Being at PlayPenn does not guarantee a play will go on to performances throughout the country — but it has a pretty good success rate, with more than 60 percent of “graduates” going into production.
Anthony said that, at the moment, “nothing is set in stone” for The House of the Negro Insane. “But I definitely am hoping to come out of PlayPenn with momentum.”
First round of conference readings at PlayPenn. All readings at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 341 Hicks Street. Free, but attendees should register at playpenn.org/calendar. July 18, 5 p.m.: Galilee by Christine Evans; 8 p.m.: Hard Cell by Brent Askari. July 19, 5 p.m.: Thirst by C.A. Johnson; 8 p.m.: penny candy by Jonathan Norton. July 20, 5 p.m.: With by Carter Louis; 8 p.m.: House of the Negro Insane by Terence Anthony. Second-round readings July 27-30. Information: 215-242-2813, playpenn.org.