By Tyler Dobrowsky
Lauren Yee, the writer of The Song of Summer, is one of the most produced new playwrights in the country. She is the winner of several awards, including most recently the Horton Foote Award for Outstanding New American Play. She just finished writing on a new Netflix TV show, Mixtape, and her last play in New York, The Great Leap, starred Tony Award-winner B.D. Wong. Her work is being produced on a national scale, and theaters across the country are lining up to present her plays.
So how did Trinity Rep end up premiering a brand new piece by this incredible (and incredibly busy) new playwright? An excellent question!
A few years ago, Trinity Rep received some financial support from The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, specifically to commission and develop new work. Trinity Rep reached out to a number of up-and-coming playwrights, including Jackie Sibblies Drury, Marcus Gardley, Charise Castro-Smith, and Lauren Yee, and asked them to write plays for Trinity Rep, for our acting company, and for our Rhode Island community. The Song of Summer is one of those commissions come to life; last year’s Into the Breeches! was another. Next year’s adaptation of the New York Times bestseller The Prince of Providence is a third.
Trinity Rep doesn’t give too many parameters to their commissioned writers, other than the play should be written for members of our acting company, so Lauren had free reign to create her own story. She began with a fairly simple, though intriguing premise: what happens when a one-hit wonder, riding high with the song of the summer, comes back home, to meet up with his former piano teacher and his old flame?
We started workshopping the play a few years ago, first working on a few scenes Lauren had written and talking about the themes and characters in the play. Lauren is a wizard when it comes to writing while in workshop, and soon the play started to take shape. We did a few more workshops over the next few years, the last one occurring this past fall in New York. (Time was of the essence for that one, since Lauren was eight-and-a-half months pregnant!)
We also hired Max Vernon and Helen Park, two wonderful musicians and composers who recently wrote the songs for KPOP at Ars Nova in New York, to write the eponymous “song of the summer.” As you’ll see in the play, they actually had to write two versions of the song, one a more radio-friendly pop version and then another, pared-down and plaintive version.
And while no new play is ever totally finished, that is how Lauren Yee’s piece came to be!
Trinity Rep’s goal, however, is not just to create high-profile, nationally-recognized productions that will be produced around the country (though that is, of course, a goal), but also to make sustained, continual investments in the people of Rhode Island. To that end, here are some of the other projects we have coming down the pipeline. Not all of these pieces will make it to our stage — some of them are not even designed to be produced at our theater, per se — but all of them will, in some way, impact and reflect the different people and places of Rhode Island.
We have commissioned Mark Valdez, a nationally recognized Latinx artist with extensive experience in community and multi-cultural work, and who directed 2016-17 Season’s Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna and this season’s production of A Christmas Carol, to create a story-based, community-sourced and performed theater project that aims to strengthen cross-cultural understanding. We are already in deep discussions with Mark about how to create this project, in affiliation with Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA), one of our most important partner organizations, and particularly Marta Martinez, RILA’s executive director and an acclaimed oral historian.
We are working with Ana Bess Moyer Bell, the founder and executive director of COAAST (Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together) to further develop her docu-drama piece about the opioid addiction epidemic ravaging Rhode Island. Trinity Rep and Ana Bess have been in partnership the past year, providing rehearsal space as well as dramaturgical assistance as she creates her piece which will tour to community centers, libraries, and shelters throughout New England.
We will continue to commission Latinx writers from the Providence community to produce our free, mobile, bilingual summer Shakespeare series, Teatro en El Verano. This program, unique in the regional theater, provides performing opportunities for members of the Rhode Island Latinx community, and crucially makes local theater accessible to the fastest- growing population in the state.
Simply put, no other theater in the country is doing this kind of work on this scale. As we grow and expand the scope of Trinity Rep’s new play development, investing in non-traditional methods, it is vital that we continue to nurture those works that are already in the pipeline and continue to add new voices to the American canon.