Lauren Gunderson and Seema Sueko among artists selected for Olney Theatre Center’s Vanguard Arts Fund in 2023/24

Collaborative projects to be workshopped tackle the adaptation of a Hawaiian epic and a musical about women's gymnastics.

Olney Theatre Center will workshop two new collaborative projects as part of its Vanguard Arts Fund (VAF) during the 2023/24 season: Built for This (book by Lauren Gunderson, music and lyrics by Kira Stone) is a feminist pop musical centering the experiences of five young, talented women gymnasts in a scenario reminiscent of the years of unchecked abuse perpetrated by Dr. Larry Nassar. Song of the Exile is a collaboration between director Seema Sueko, Native Hawaiian novelist Kiana Davenport, and composer/sound designer André Pluess, adapting Davenport’s novel of the same title, which begins in Honolulu in the years prior to World War II before going on an Odysseus-like journey that concludes just prior to the island’s statehood in 1959. The projects were selected from over 300 entries that were reviewed by the Olney Theatre Center Artistic Staff in a process coordinated by Senior Associate Artistic Director Hallie Gordon and Casting Director Irene Martinko. Each winner receives one week of workshop space, $900 per generative artist, travel and housing, and the support of the Olney Theatre staff for casting, contracting, and management. The application window for the next round of projects opens in early 2024.

Lauren Gunderson and Seema Sueko

Created in 2018 with seed money from the Eugene B. Casey Foundation, several prior VAF projects have gone on to be included in Olney Theatre season including the critically acclaimed A.D. 16, created by playwright Bekah Brunstetter, composer/screenwriter Cinco Paul, and director Stephen Brackett which has Broadway expectations; the world-premiere dramatic comedy The Joy That Carries You co-written by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller, which captured the Helen Hayes Outstanding New Play Award; and the ground-breaking Deaf and hearing production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, which was also recognized at the Helen Hayes Awards with wins for Outstanding Lead Performer in a Musical and Outstanding Direction of a Musical. Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Soprano, which received a workshop in 2022, will be produced during the upcoming season.

Said Artistic Director Jason Loewith: “To have developed four projects that have not only made it into our season but then have three of them go on to receive Helen Hayes recognition really exceeds our expectations given the relatively brief life of the Vanguard Arts Fund. We’re deeply grateful to the Eugene B. Casey Foundation for enabling us to provide the time and space for gifted collaborators to innovate new works.”



The fierce world of competitive gymnastics is not for the faint of heart, and young women on the path to the Olympics face a seismic level of pressure and perfection. Enter Built For This: an athletic, feminist pop musical centering five fierce young gymnasts confronting inner demons required for top-tier competition, as well as a real-life demon preying on their youth, ambition, and vulnerability. Inspired by the gymnast survivors of Olympic doctor Larry Nassar and USA Women’s Gymnastics, and conceived from interviews with gymnast survivors, non-profits, and the judge who sentenced Nassar to 100+ years in prison, this fictionalized show offers these young women a platform to speak their truth as they stand up to a man and a system seemingly determined to shove them down. Up until now, the development of this musical has been entirely virtual and long-distance, and the Vanguard Arts Fund workshop will mark the first time that the team is able to collaborate in person.

Key Artists: Lauren Gunderson (Book), Kira Stone (Music and Lyrics)


Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Kiana Davenport, this jazz-filled epic brings us on an Odysseus-like journey of love, separation, and transformation over the course of 17 years. Beginning in a nightclub in Honolulu in 1935 and carrying us through the turmoil of World War II, Song of the Exile is a fascinating cultural collaboration bringing to light the plight of the Japanese Army’s “comfort women” in prisoner-of-war camps. This workshop will be used to explore the way that music is used to tell this powerful story, further the narrative, and enhance the artistry of the piece.

Key Artists: Kiana Davenport (novelist), André Pluess (sound designer/composer), Seema Sueko (generative director)

The workshops will be closed to the public.

THE VANGUARD ARTS FUND is Olney Theatre Center’s new-work development initiative, which provides space and dollars to generative artists creating theater in cooperative ways.  Rather than replicate traditional new-play programs that support a singular playwright, the Fund champions ideas at any stage of development that require interdisciplinary collaboration to come to fruition. The Fund intends to sponsor two or more workshops each year in a variety of theatrical genres and forms, from ensemble-devised pieces to designer-led explorations to cross-discipline investigations. While the Fund may provide a pathway to Olney Theatre Center production, its goals are more about supporting the selected artists. Established in 2018 by an endowment gift from the Eugene B. Casey Foundation, and supported by Olney Theatre Center’s general operating fund, the Vanguard Arts Fund seeds the field with new theater that challenges the definition of what theater is, and how theater is created. More information about applying for the 24/25 cycle and prior Vanguard Arts Projects is available here.


Olney Theatre Center for the Arts produces and curates theatrical performances for the diverse audiences in our community, and educates, learns from, supports, and inspires a more inclusive generation of theatermakers.

Olney strives to become an arts and culture powerhouse, redefining the American regional theater movement by cultivating and sharing the creativity of its community.

Founded in 1938 as a summer playhouse, Olney Theatre Center (OTC) now produces world and American premieres of plays and musicals and reimaginings of familiar titles year-round; presents the work of leading companies and artists; tours nationally and locally; teaches students of all ages; and mentors a more inclusive generation of theatermakers. For more than 8 decades, OTC has brought impactful theater performance and education to its community, helping to grow the vibrancy and vitality of our home in the Washington, DC region.

Over the years, some of the biggest names in theater and film have appeared on Olney stages, including Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Bob Fosse, Phillip Bosco, Eve Arden, Eva Gabor, Burl Ives, Jose Ferrer, Carol Channing, Olivia de Havilland, Tony Randall, Paulette Goddard, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Jane Seymour, Anne Revere, Frances Sternhagen, Arthur Treacher, James Broderick, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McKellen, Marica Gay Harden, John Colicos, Uzo Aduba, Alan Cumming, Cheyenne Jackson, Robin de Jesus, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, among many, many others.

Olney Theatre is now the cultural anchor of a rapidly changing region and serves one of the most diverse, best-educated, and wealthiest counties in the country. Situated on the unceded land of the Piscataway-Conoy people, the Olney area was once a rural farming community with a unique Quaker heritage. Now the area is occupied by every kind of family that makes up 21st-century America, along with major corporations, shopping districts, civic associations, nonprofit organizations, and a diverse collection of houses of worship. Montgomery County’s 1 million residents play a dynamic role in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and are a driving force behind the region’s creative economy.

Olney Theatre Center employs 40 full-time staff, 20 part-time positions, 13 early career apprentices, and more than 400 professional artists annually. The Theatre intends to continue expanding to better meet the needs of its community.

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