Nurturing Broadway’s next hits

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Hal Brooks is the common denominator among this season’s standout plays “Hillary and Clinton” and “What the Constitution Means to Me”


  • Hal Brooks (right), with (from left) director Adrienne Campbell-Holt and writer/producer P.K. Simonds, discussing CCTP’s 2018 production of “Bearded Ladies,” which Simonds wrote and Campbell-Holt directed. Photo: Beth Armstrong

  • Playwright Bess Wohl, whose “Continuity” will open at the Manhattan Theater Club on the Upper West Side. Photo: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

The 2018-2019 season for New York theater has been a remarkable one. Shows like “Hillary and Clinton,” a play set in a parallel universe about a woman named Hillary running for President, have not only entertained us, but also challenged us to think about what the real Hillary’s two runs for president meant for the country. The upcoming play “Continuity” by Bess Wohl, at the Manhattan Theatre Club on the Upper West Side, shows us what it is like to be a woman in a position of power in Hollywood. And the surprise hit “What the Constitution Means to Me” by Heidi Schreck has engaged us in a dialogue about our laws and their effects on our everyday lives. On Tuesday, “Constitution” and “Hillary and Clinton” both received Tony nominations.

There is one man who is the common denominator among these standout shows. Brooklyn-based director and Yale School of Drama professor Hal Brooks has had a hand in developing all of these plays. Brooks is the artistic director of the Cape Cod Theatre Project, a non-for profit summer theater dedicated to developing new American plays. Located in Falmouth, MA, CCTP — which is looking ahead to its 25th anniversary this summer — produces staged readings of four new American plays during the month of July. During a show’s designated week, the playwright rehearses, revises, and puts on his or her play before a live audience. Plays often change drastically in the week they have for both performance and rehearsal, so audiences have the opportunity to witness a play’s evolution in real time.

While some of these shows never make it to Broadway, or even a fully staged production, that is not CCTP’s objective. “The goal isn’t nor should be to have a play come up to the Cape and go to Broadway,” says Brooks. “I don’t think that’s what we should be shooting for. Is the play that we’ve chosen developing along the [right] path? This play may be a great play and never have a production. But what’s important to me is that they continue to develop as a playwright.”

And Brooks’ dedication to process over product has paid off for the organization. Several of the theater’s past plays have enjoyed productions in New York on and off Broadway. Manhattan Theatre Club produced Sharr White’s play “The Snow Geese,” starring Mary Louise Parker and Danny Burstein, on Broadway immediately after its 2013 July reading at CCTP. The concert play “Seawife” went on to have a celebrated run off-Broadway at the South Street Seaport Museum after its reading at CCTP in 2014.

But The 2018-2019 New York theater season has been an exceptional one for CCTP. CCTP’s influence on the American theater is all over Broadway and off-Broadway. Following its staged reading at CCTP in 2015, “Hillary and Clinton” had its first production at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and is now opening on Broadway with John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf playing the show’s eponymous heroine. Wohl’s “Continuity” is making its New York debut this season after its staged reading at CCTP in 2017. Playwrights Horizons produced Will Arbery’s play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” following its reading at CCTP in 2018. And Schreck revised and developed “What the Constitution Means To Me” while she was the company’s artist-in-residence in 2017, according to Brooks.

Is there a magic formula for getting a show from Falmouth to Broadway? Brooks doesn’t think so. “You never know how it’s gonna land with an audience,” says Brooks. “It’s very mystical in a lot of ways.” Brooks does, however, have a specific way he likes to structure his season. “I choose a play, and then I choose its opposite ... I choose a play by a known playwright, by an unknown playwright ... I [also] do the best that I can to establish gender parity in playwrights we bring up as well as cast. I like to have a range that’s challenging and exciting.”

For Wohl, Brooks and CCTP were the earliest champions of her playwriting career. “As I began to write plays, Hal was incredibly generous with me in terms of supporting my writing ambitions,” she said. “With ‘Continuity,’ he believed in the play before I knew what it was. When I applied for Cape Cod, I think I only had about 30 or 40 pages of it, and he said, ‘I believe in you enough to trust that this will turn into something.’”

Something notable about “Continuity,” “What The Constitution Means to Me,” and “Hillary and Clinton” is that all these plays were either written by female playwrights or have strong female characters in their stories. Wohl feels that Brooks has always been a supporter of female voices, playwrights and directors, saying that she “felt completely welcomed by Cape Cod to the point where I really just felt like a writer. I didn’t feel excluded because of my gender [and] I didn’t feel included because of my gender: I just felt like I was a writer there to do work.” Wohl commends Brooks for “putting his theater project where his mouth is.”

Brooks seems to relish the current era of theater where the issues of inclusion and fair representation on stage are on theatergoers’ minds. “There’s so much going on right now,” says Brooks. “It’s a really vibrant time. There are plays about gender [and] race diversity that are being produced at big theaters. It’s kind of really cool to watch. So much has changed in the past few years: there [are] a lot more LGBTQ artists we’re seeing onstage, we’re seeing plays from different ethnicities we haven’t seen before. We’re fully into 2019 and we’re seeing that onstage.”

Without the opportunities Brooks gave to Schreck, Wohl and other playwrights who have come through CCTP, these productions may have never made it to New York. Brooks’ decision to support these artists has made New York’s theater season funnier, richer and more diverse than ever before.

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