An Act of Faith
Cal MacLean is starting to plan the 2019-20 season for the Clarence Brown Theatre, but is missing one key component – a play. A unique program in the Department of Theatre, however, will ensure the season will be complete by the time the curtain opens.
Since 2014, MacLean, artistic director and head of the Department of Theatre, has commissioned a playwright to come to campus to write and develop a play specifically for an MFA acting ensemble. The actors meet with the playwright during their first year of training to discuss ideas for a new play and then work together over the next three years to bring it to fruition. In their third year, the play is fully produced in the Clarence Brown Theatre season, with the students performing it.
“This experience gives our students a unique perspective on the craft and the business of the actor that other training programs do not provide,” MacLean says. “The major contribution to their education during this project is an opportunity to really see how a play is crafted and developed over time. It’s risky and it’s daring and it may work out great or it may not; we just don’t know.”
Lauren Pennline met playwright Christopher Oscar Peña in 2015 during the first year of her MFA theatre program. She took the stage in February 2018 for the Clarence Brown Theatre-commissioned world premiere of the strangers.
“Working on a new play for my graduate acting class was incredibly humbling and a rare opportunity,” says Pennline, a third-year MFA student. “Usually actors enter the process of producing a play after the play’s creation, so the chance to be part of the entire production process was a very unique and rewarding experience.”
Very few theatre programs take on this type of project, which gives the UT Department of Theatre a competitive edge on other programs when it comes to recruiting MFA students.
“It’s hard to commit to a play in production that has not even been written yet,” MacLean says. “Some of it is an act of faith that something will be presentable as we start planning a season. I think this gives some schools of theatre a certain amount of pause, but I’m proud of the fact we have this interest and commitment to new work.”
Jed Diamond, associate professor of theatre, says the commissioned playwright is a major draw for many students looking at UT as a choice for their MFA acting program.
“To give the actors a chance to develop a play that is written for them is a big deal,” Diamond says. “To work with a playwright and a director to develop new work and originating a role is a big positive. The students I recruit are always very excited about it.”
Another benefit of this program is a resume-builder for theatre graduates. Christopher Oscar Peña, whose plays are produced in the United States and United Kingdom, writes for HBO and the CW. Plays by the first commissioned playwright, Rob Caisley, are also being produced across the country. His play The Open Hand, which had its world premiere at the Clarence Brown Theatre in March 2016, was published with a list of all the UT MFA actors on the title page.
“Now more than ever, new work is happening all over the country,” Pennline says. “We are experiencing an upsurge in contemporary plays, but also in classic stories rewritten with a contemporary twist. It is important to gain experience with new and emerging plays and their creators. Not only do we leave this program better prepared for the collaboration with a playwright on a new play, we’re also better prepared to collaborate with another passionate group of artists on our own work in future.”
The UT Department of Theatre is one of 12 theatre programs in country with a resident, professional theatre on its campus. The Clarence Brown is a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and provides students with the opportunity to work with professional actors, directors, and designers. Its national reputation attracts acting and design students from all over the country who, when they graduate, often excel in a very challenging profession.
“Our students are taking their place in the profession, but more to the point, they are getting an education of how to behave and present themselves as well as how to take their place in the professional environment that few schools can offer,” MacLean says.
The next commissioned playwright was on campus in early March meeting with the new first-year MFA students to begin brainstorming ideas for the play that will complete the 2019-20 season at the Clarence Brown Theatre.