When the Royal Exchange asked me if I’d like to attend the Kenyon College Playwright’s Conference in Gambier, Ohio, my response was a resounding OBVIOUSLY (followed by typing Gambier, Ohio into Google maps). An opportunity to spend a week away from the chaos of London, to write, to study at the prestigious Kenyon College, to be in Gambier, Ohio…? Unturndownable.
Gambier is an hour’s shuttle ride from Ohio’s biggest city, Columbus. To a city girl whose only venture to the States was to mother of cities NYC aged 18, it is very rural and very beautiful: classic road trip landscape. Nestled in the middle of Gambier is Kenyon College – as majestic as it is prestigious and, as one of my shuttle buddies tells me, a liberal oasis in a swing state that recently swung red.
I locate my student’s room, unpack my bag, and head out to the welcome dinner where Wendy McLeod (writer and director of the conference) tells us more about the ethos of KPC. KPC is designed to give us writers space to develop in whatever way we need: the schedule is jam-packed, but no one is taking attendance. This is a bespoke experience, and everything’s up for grabs.
After a much needed sleep to ease the jet lag, I dive in. Monday morning’s class is with Max Webster, the Old Vic’s Associate Director. After a thought-provoking three hours on structure and how to approach the middle of your play, it’s lunch and then some writing in the sunshine. In the evening I check out ‘Open Barn’, KPC’s platform for sharing extracts from work-in-progress, expertly facilitated by Gregg Wiggans and Liz Carlson-Guerin. Each writer is guaranteed a 20-minute slot, to include sharing an extract and a talk-back with the audience. I take a deep breath and sign up for Thursday…
Tuesday morning my class is with Wendy McLeod, whose smart, precise look at writing is a master class in how to lead a master class. I’m inspired, and spend my afternoon looking at my Bruntwood play Sound of Silence in light of Wendy’s provocations. Then I head to the first of three workshops led by ‘the commissioned playwrights’. First up is British playwright Diana Nneka Atuona (commissioned by the Old Vic), who offers a generous insight into her process of research. In the evening, I discover the Village Inn (the only pub on campus) and start to get to know some of the instructors and faculty better. Hours (and pints of ‘the Truth’ – Gambier ale) later, and I’m deep in philosophical debate about the role and responsibility of the playwright. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
Suddenly the week is going too fast. Wednesday we spend a morning with the brilliant Jill Rafson, Director for New Play Development at Roundabout Theater, followed by a workshop by the second of the commissioned playwrights, Phil Dawkins (commissioned by Roundabout). No one’s taking attendance, but I want to be at everything.
Thursday is my favourite day. It starts with an exhilarating workshop with Kenyon-trained actor and playwright Ben Viccellio exploring eight-part story structure. In the afternoon, I have a tutorial with Gregg Wiggans on a new full length play project I’m writing, and feel excited to tackle a new draft. Then Stephen Dietz (third of the commissioned playwrights; here with ACT) gives a lecture (or in Dietz-speak a ‘disruption’) worthy of an award: an honest, provocative talk dethroning the myth of inspiration, and offering an alternative lens through which to view story making. I am ‘disrupted’ in the best way. In the evening, I share an extract from my Bruntwood play at Open Barn – and I am ‘disrupted’ some more. There’s too much good stuff in my brain.
It’s Friday already but I don’t want it to be. The last of my workshops is with the inspirational Emily Penick, Lit Manager at ACT Seattle. Appropriately, it’s on ‘endings’, but I’m just getting started. Emily’s approach shifts something for me, and suddenly I’m looking at my work back to front, and then front to back, and things are consolidating (my story, my characters, the reason why I write). The rest of Friday and Saturday morning is devoted to rehearsed readings of plays by the commissioned playwrights: a great way to end the week, and a treat to witness the work in development.
And then, suddenly, it’s home time. But not before ordering a round of ‘the Truth’ (any excuse to order ‘the Truth’) for my new friends and colleagues. For, although the new ways of thinking I’ve been exposed to will linger for a long while, the thing that will really stick is the friendships. A huge thank you to all the instructors, writers, participants and interns, to KPC for convening an amazing week, and – last but not least – to Kenyon, Bruntwood and the Royal Exchange for making this trip possible.