Yale Rep helps playwrights follow their hearts, find their voices
Harrison David Rivers was teaching playwriting at Kenyon College in 2018 when he got the call.
The Binger Center for New Theatre, a program of Yale Repertory Theatre and the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, was offering him a sizable commission to write a new play. The offer also came with the promise of development resources and the possibility of an onstage production of the work.
“It came out of the blue, and it was a wonderful phone call to get,” Rivers said. “It’s the kind of commission that allows you to clear the deck a bit and take the time to both think and write.”
Five years later, the result of that commission, “The Salvagers,” is making its world premiere at Yale Rep, now through Dec. 16. Set in Chicago, the play portrays the difficult relationship between a Black father and his adult son living under the same roof.
The production is the latest example of the Binger Center’s integral role in keeping playwrights and audiences engaged in American theater. Since 2008, when it was established with a grant from the Robina Foundation (a Minnesota-based nonprofit founded by the late philanthropist James Binger ’38), the center has supported the work of more than 70 commissioned artists and underwritten 30 world premiere productions at Yale Rep.
“It’s about nurturing voices,” said Amy Boratko ’06 M.F.A., Yale Rep’s senior artistic producer. “We say, ‘write what you want to write next. These are the resources available to you. What do you have in your head and your heart right now that can use these tools best?’”
The center’s import will be especially apparent next spring when two plays previously commissioned with its support will appear on Broadway.
“Mary Jane,” by Amy Herzog ’00, ’07 M.F.A., a lecturer in playwriting at the Geffen School, will open in April 2024 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
And the musical “Lempicka,” by playwright Carson Kreitzer ’91 and composer Matt Gould, opens in March at the Longacre Theatre. (It was a co-commission between New Dramatists and Yale Rep in the Full Stage USA Program.)
“It’s kind of an incredible moment,” Boratko said.
For Rivers, an award-winning playwright, librettist, and television writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Yale Rep commission represented a strong show of faith in his work. He’d been thinking about the play that emerged as “The Salvagers” since 2014. Bits and pieces of it were in his head. He pitched the rough idea to Boratko and her colleagues and they urged him to pursue it.
“Everything was a conversation, which I really valued,” Rivers said. “They want to be a thought partner. They want to be sort of in the dirt with you playing around, like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, let’s dig there a little bit more.’”
He turned in his first draft at the start of the pandemic, just as the theatre shut down, so further development was stalled beyond a couple of Zoom readings. It wasn’t until last fall that Rivers and Yale Rep were able to arrange a two-day, in-person reading in New York City directed by Tamilla Woodard ’02 M.F.A., resident director at Yale Rep.
Rivers took what he learned from that experience to inform further revisions. Then, much to his delight, after he turned in the final draft, Yale Rep announced they would produce it.
A ‘deep and total’ collaboration
The Binger Center commissions about four playwrights a year. Potential projects are brought in for consideration by invitation only — there is no process for applying. Yale Rep’s artistic staff, led by artistic director (and Geffen School dean) James Bundy, is constantly scouting the field, keeping up with who’s writing, and who’s coming out of the play development programs. They collect recommendations from colleagues and theatrical agents, they go see plays at new work festivals. And they look for playwrights at different stages of their careers.
At any given time, there are around 30 projects in the works, all at different stages of the process.
In the case of “The Salvagers,” Boratko, Bundy, and Jennifer Kiger, a lecturer in playwriting at the Geffen School, had all been reading Rivers’ work before they offered him the commission.
“He just crafts these beautiful human stories,” Boratko said. “There’s so much nuance in the relationships and in the characters. And there’s a poetry to his writing. There’s also beauty and poetry in his stage directions. We really wanted to see what he would write for us.”
“The Salvagers,” she said, is ultimately life-affirming. Rivers “has such a love for his characters, and a tenderness for them, that I think makes it a beautiful, special experience.”
Rivers has treasured the collaboration with Yale Rep, which he calls “deep and total.” The commission gave him the time and space to explore “hard things,” feeling completely supported while doing so and not under any pressure.
“Sometimes when I’m working on a piece alone, it’s like I’m in a dark room and I’m fumbling around for the doorknob and it’s just not there,” he said. “In this case, it’s like the room was dark but someone had a flashlight, and they were asking, ‘where do you want me to point it?’”
|The Binger Center by the Numbers
|World premiere productions at Yale Rep supported by Binger
|New plays (not premieres) at Yale Rep supported by Binger
|Projects currently in development
|Total projects commissioned
|Yale Rep commissions on Broadway in 2024