The word “new” appears often in Road Less Traveled Productions’ vocabulary. A new theater. A new season. A commitment to developing new work.
Now, it’s ready for a new challenge: the company is introducing a National Playwright Residency.
RLTP has welcomed Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph as its 2016 national playwright, and will help him develop his new play, “Santa Maria,” over the next year.
“We successfully moved into (the Forbes Theatre) and taking another big step forward here,” said Scott Behrend, co-founder and artistic/executive director of RLTP.
Joseph will bring experience writing for Broadway, television and film to the company. His repertoire includes “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist that was also awarded a grant for Outstanding New American Play by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Joseph said the residency will be helpful for him.
“It’s always fantastic when a theater decides that they want to support and develop new works,” he said in a phone interview from New York City. “I think that’s vital to the future of American theater and it’s really great that this particular theater is doing that.”
And he’s keen on the location: His brother plays in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and lives in the city with his wife and two kids.
“The idea of having an excuse to go to Buffalo twice for this residency, both do that and see them, was really appealing,” he said.
Joseph will work on “Santa Maria,” a play already commissioned by Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It deals with sailors on the Santa Maria who are terrified of where they’re going, think they’re lost at sea and pretend to be sick because they’re too afraid to go up on deck.
He said he’s always been interested in the story of Columbus’s three ships and the voyage to the “New World.” He plans to use the sailors’ journey toward what could be the edge of the world to explore the feelings of dread and anxiety people have when they think of the future.
“I’m looking at this to explore contemporary neurosis through a historical context,” he said.
Joseph said he will have a portion of the first draft finished when he comes to Buffalo for a few days in November. He said he hopes to have a few scenes and monologues to uncover the characters.
“And what I expect for that first go-around is to try out the new material and then foster some discussion between me and the other artists in the room and have that help guide me toward my next draft,” he said.
Behrend said more than 100 applications came in for the residency. Given its humble beginnings, the volume of applicants was a pleasant surprise.
In 2003, Behrend and John Elston, literary director and resident playwright, founded the company and produced a lot of Elston’s plays. They were fascinated by new work, and made it their mission to develop and produce new plays by local writers.
But it was tricky: At that time, not many people were writing plays in Buffalo.
So they created the Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop, a development hub aimed toward creating full-length plays. Behrend and Elston began with three writers. Over a series of six months, they got together to read each other’s plays and offer feedback. At the workshop’s end, there was a free public reading.
The program led to 27 world premiere plays by Western New York writers. As it became more competitive, Behrend recognized the company was ready for a new program to launch into its next phase. Last year, the Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop evolved into the Regional Residency Program, a custom development program that gives playwrights the necessary resources to get their play to production.
Then came the idea to offer a residency to a national playwright.
“(The idea was) to not only give our writers access to somebody outside our community, but then also to help spread the gospel a little bit about what we do internally developing new work,” Behrend said.
Behrend said Joseph is a great match.
“I think his writing totally jives with our aesthetic as a theater company,” Behrend said. “We tend to do smart, imaginative, challenging theater, and I think that’s exactly what he’s interested in.”
Behrend said he is a proponent of giving the local playwrights access to someone “who’s at the top of their game.” He’s done this before with the American Theatre Master Series, which has brought national theatrical luminaries like Eric Bogosian and Edward Albee to Buffalo in support of some of their productions.
News of Joseph’s arrival coincides with the theater company’s transition from the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, where it had been for a decade, into the Forbes Theatre at 512 Pearl St. before the opening of its 2015-16 season in September.
It was tough, Behrend said, but reminded him of the company’s original mission to relish challenges and strive to create something new.