Josh Sticklin on a pandemic pivot for Keegan’s Boiler Room Series

Now streaming, the series invites audiences to step inside the process of new play development.

The Boiler Room Series at the Keegan Theatre has always been a creative powerhouse and a welcoming home for new voices. It is an opportunity for playwrights to develop work that is destined for workshops or staged readings later in the season. The Boiler Room is known for its commitment to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women artists.

Lisa Stephen Friday’s provocative one-woman show about her trans journey, Trans Am, which had a successful run this year at the Keegan, began as a cabaret for the BRS in 2020. Brazilian-American writer Graziella Jackson, whose play The Wilting Point is featured this year, will be Keegan’s playwright-in-residence for the upcoming season.

The plan for this year was to highlight some of the most compelling writers in BRS history live on stage, but the pandemic upended that plan. The actor, producer, and director Josh Sticklin, who curates the series, was forced to change course in mid-stream and make it all happen. We interviewed him to find out how he did it.

Josh Sticklin photographed by Megan Thrift

As you were programming this year’s Boiler Room Series, what were you looking for?

Josh Sticklin: This season’s playwrights all came from the first five years of the Boiler Room Series. With our five-year anniversary this year, I wanted to further celebrate and support some of the playwrights who made BRS’s first five years possible and who had new works ready that they wanted to workshop. BRS commissioned The Wilting Point and Push the Button for this series. Those two pieces will go on to full production on Keegan’s main stage next season. BRS has already launched its call for submissions for next season’s series and we are eager to continue the pipeline of commissioning BRS playwrights for new works that we’ll support from birth, to workshop, to full production. I hope that one day soon, BRS can further help fill the void left by closures of some of the major incubators by fully producing entire seasons of new work.

Why and when did you switch to online streaming? Can you tell us about the decision process?

We switched to online on May 4 based on the COVID spike moving through the city. Among the 60-person team, we had a few positive cases and known exposures. As we saw other theaters cancel performances in the spike, we wanted to make sure we could still provide the playwrights with the critical audience-facing aspect of the workshop process while maintaining strong artist health and safety measures all along. As we discussed options for moving forward, we also saw an opportunity to expand access to these new works to those who may not feel comfortable attending shows in person yet, or to potential audience members who weren’t in the DC area. Additionally, we recognized the value in being able to provide playwrights with a video record of their performance, for ongoing reference as they continue to develop their scripts. We began to see that there were many advantages to pivoting to an online platform, in addition to keeping safety front and center.

Scenes from the 2022 Keegan Theatre Boiler Room Series: ‘The Wilting Point’ by Graziella Jackson; ‘Push the Button by Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown. Photos by Alyssa Neely.

How did video production affect the scripts? The performances?

Our goal with the video production of the series was to honor, as best we could, the workshopping process, and to provide a solid, archivable, and accessible platform for these new works to be taken in by audiences and the playwrights themselves. To this end, we kept our focus on the words on the page, rather than on any film production aspect, beyond what the artistic teams had planned to do for the in-person series. These are filmed staged readings. The primary goal was to give the playwrights time with a director and actors to work through the scripts, work through new ideas and edits, and then get that stage of the process in front of an audience for feedback. We believe this has been achieved and will hopefully reach an even wider virtual audience than we would have in person.

How were the directing techniques different for the screen than for the stage?

The teams continued to move forward considering these pieces as though they were live workshop readings (at whatever place they were in their development journey) and that’s what we filmed. You’ll see varying degrees of staging and flavors of design elements across the pieces. We kept the design intentions that had been planned for live audiences. Some staging adjustments were made to allow more space between actors, but otherwise, we stayed true to the ideas and imaginations that designers had brought to the table from the beginning. The ultimate goal was to get these words working with artists and then audiences for the first time. While we would have preferred to do both parts entirely in person, we adapted as little about the process as possible to still get the critical audience-facing part out. We hope audiences interested in new works will find this a valuable way to take in a new script, and to provide online feedback to the writers — to get in at the early stage of development of some terrific new plays in progress.

Scenes from the 2022 Keegan Theatre Boiler Room Series: ‘En Las Sombras’ by Jordan Ramirez Puckett; ‘Mushroom’ by Darren Donohue. Photos by Alyssa Neely.

What do you think you gained from a changing to a streaming version?

What’s lovely about having the workshop performance filmed is their potential reach. Now they can be shared for feedback worldwide and the playwrights have a tangible reference point in the evolution of their pieces. The feedback they have already received from directors, actors, and designers through the workshop process now meets audience feedback. From here, playwrights can run diagnostics on their pieces. What is working? What do people have questions about? Do the lasting impressions match my aims for writing the piece?

What would you like audiences to take away from viewing this year’s Boiler Room Series online?

I hope that they will engage with these six very different new works and help them along their development journey by providing some feedback. This touchpoint is invaluable and wouldn’t be possible without audiences willing to bravely step inside the process. I hope they are as excited to see glimpses into theater’s future as I am.

Scenes from the 2022 Keegan Theatre Boiler Room Series: ‘Marjorie Is Dead’ by Priyanka Shetty; ‘Strangers with Benefits’ by Shadia Hafiz. Photos by Alyssa Neely.

The six plays in this year’s Boiler Room Series

The Wilting Point by Graziella Jackson focuses on a fourth-generation farmer in Colorado whose farm, community, and livelihood are threatened by water shortages. The differing attitudes of young and old about global warming are highlighted poignantly in this family drama, which will be featured on the main stage next season.

Push the Button by Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown (From Gumbo to Mumbo), a hip-hop musical, is a playful parody about the concept of heroism in the context of social justice. In a town beset by conflict, the celebrated Hero accuses the prank-prone Villain of the worst crime of all: Pushing the Button (Gasp!). Push the Button is also headed for the main stage next year.

En Las Sombras, by Jordan Ramirez Puckett, begins as a mythological story about Xenia and Luz, who are on a journey to the trial of the gods. By the end, we discover they are actually two siblings detained on the U.S.-Mexico border. Mushroom, by Darren Donohue, introduces us to college students protesting a controversial sculpture, with unexpected consequences and insights into the complexity of identity politics.

Marjorie Is Dead, by Priyanka Shetty, a comedy in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse and Fry & Laurie, features a deadly virus that attacks a British family; and Strangers with Benefits, by Shadia Hafiz, involves a no-strings-attached hookup, which turns into a serious romance.

BRS seeks artists and projects locally, nationally, and internationally. This year’s themes —  global warming, heroism as social justice, identity politics, illness, and sexuality — are all intriguing and uniquely applicable to the complexities of now.

The playwrights: Graziella Jackson, Drew Anderson, Dwayne Lawson-Brown, Jordan Ramirez Puckett, Darren Donohue, Priyanka Shetty, and Shadia Hafiz.

The Keegan Theatre Boiler Room Series is available online through June 19, 2022. Tickets to view the filmed performances are pay-what-you-can and can be purchased online.

The Boiler Room Series playbill is online here.

The Boiler Room Series features Graziella Jackson, Drew Anderson & Dwayne Lawson-Brown, Darren Donohue, Shadia Hafiz, Jordan Ramirez Puckett, and Priyanka Shetty.

The company’s next live production will be the regional premiere of Shakespeare in Love, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, from June 18 to July 16, 2022, running in repertory with The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (and Her Dog!), by Lauren Gunderson with music by Bree Lowdermilk, a Keegan Play-Rah-Ka production for families, from July 5 to 24, 2022. Performances are at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW Washington, DC. For more information and tickets visit keegantheatre.com.

COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Information about Keegan’s updated policies and procedures is on its Health & Safety page.

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Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time real estate editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

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