Where Stories Are Told

Author: Ruth Keyso '91


Two years before famed African-American playwright August Wilson died in 2005, Polly Carl ’88, ’90M.A., drove him around the Twin Cities to see where he hung out in the early years of his career.

“August was the most important playwright who got his start at the Playwrights’ Center,” says Carl, producing artistic director of the Minneapolis-based organization. “He was a storyteller; he went on to win all of the major awards in theater. And there he was in my car, showing me the apartment where he lived, where he worked, and a couple of places where his early work was performed” in the 1980s.

Listening to Wilson talk about his humble beginnings in the city, and the people and places that influenced his life, Carl realized that the playwright’s connection to every encounter and person in his life contributed to his uncanny ability to tell a story.

And storytelling is what Polly Carl is all about.

In her role as producing artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center, a 37-year-old organization designed to support writers and advance the art of playwriting, Carl has devoted her life to finding those stories that resonate most with the American public—and getting them onto the stage. Since taking over this leadership position in 2002, she has helped hundreds of writers see their work go on to production in major theaters throughout the country.

Production alone is not the only mark of success in her field.

“The number-one goal is to develop good professional writers,” Carl says. “But to really impact the world of theater, we have to get work produced. So the two go hand-in-hand.”

The center receives several hundred scripts a year, from both established and aspiring playwrights. Carl and a team of readers select which of these scripts they will help develop. On average, the center works with 50 writers per year, providing services from workshops—through which the script is read by professional actors—to one-on-one dramaturgical support.

So, what makes a good script? For Carl, it’s a combination of surprise and familiarity.

“Successful new plays have that mix,” she says. “[The audience] doesn’t want to be too shocked or to feel too left out. [They want] fresh voices, an old story told in a new way.”

Let the imagination roam
Carl says one of the best plays in recent years that struck this balance successfully was The Cataract, by Lisa D’Amour. Carl was “blown away by the play,” which consisted of just four actors and a simple set. “It was a beautifully imagined sense of four people who came to Minnesota to build the Stone Arch Bridge.” Though the set was sparse and actors few, Carl says the script was so powerful that it allowed her to see things which never materialized on stage.

“I love it when a play takes me somewhere,” she says. “I love using my own imagination.”

Something the theater-going public does not do enough of these days, Carl adds.

“We’re a culture that has lost track of our capacity to imagine,” Carl says. “Big plays make sure that nothing is left to our imagination; they do the imagining for you. TV, and especially reality TV, has gotten us further away from stories that allow the imagination in.”

Theater, she says, can change this.

“Let’s say you are watching Antigone, and you are truly in the moment,” Carl says. “There are not 500 soldiers on stage, but you still feel like you are in the thick of it.”

To keep the capacity to imagine alive, Carl says she and the playwrights she works with need to push people to watch plays they wouldn’t normally see. Carl is currently working to bring more Japanese theater to the American stage, a direct result of her recent visits to the Asian country and a theater exchange between the center and the Tokyo International Arts Festival in 2003. Carl concedes that encouraging people to sample new types of theater can be risky business.

“The viewer might not get [the message] of the play. And it might not be as fun as other plays to watch. And,” she says with a laugh, “it might not be too relaxing. But it might change you and how you engage the world.”

She cites the example of In Darfur, by Winter Miller, a play the center commissioned in 2006 along with the Guthrie Theater. The story about genocide in Africa was produced at the Public Theater in New York City. Carl says the play actually helped change New York’s investment policy in the Darfur region. It also got people talking after the show.

“Audiences were moved; they stayed long after the show to understand better what they could do,” she says. “As an activist and an artist, I felt particularly fulfilled by how we cultivated the best of a live art form, connecting them and changing them and maybe even changing the world just a little.”

The role of the dramaturg
The Playwrights’ Center is located in an abandoned, 118-year-old Lutheran church in south Minneapolis. When Carl is not working in her basement office—reading scripts, balancing the budget, writing grant proposals, calling donors and asking for support—she can be found in the center’s first-floor Waring Jones Theater helping a writer make sense of his or her play.

Approximately 60 percent of Carl’s work is as dramaturg, someone who helps playwrights hone their scripts. Liz Engelman, president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, says the role of the dramaturg is to hold the play up, like a mirror, to the writer. This is what I see. Is this what you see, too?

“A dramaturg is someone who gives writers an advocate, someone who can sit outside the play, who has perspective,” Engelman says. “[The dramaturg] helps the playwright see the vision of the play.”

Carl has a knack for the role, Engelman says, because of her background and personality.

“Polly comes from an interesting place,” Engelman says. “She was an academic for a long time. She can approach a play intellectually and from outside the box. . . . She looks at both the big canvas of the play and the specifics of it.”

Perhaps it is Carl’s personality that makes her most successful.

“She has great energy and respect for writers and establishes a writer’s trust immediately,” says Engelman, who worked as dramaturg with Carl on Rosanna Staffa’s The Interview.

That funky doctorate
Carl came to the profession through the back door. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in peace studies from Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Much of her doctoral research was in performance theory—looking at texts and talking about them, evaluating films and what they mean in their historical moment. Carl considered a career as a professor until she took a job as a grant writer at the center in 1998. That’s where she realized that the center was a place where stories were told—and she could help tell them.

Not everyone thought so.

“When I first came to the job it was hugely controversial. A lot of people thought, Who does she think she is?” Carl says. “I had a funky Ph.D. I didn’t come from Brown or Yale. My trajectory was not traditional. So I got a lot of flack early on. People were watching me.”

Carl soon established street cred among her clients and colleagues in the theater world by simply doing her job well.

“I work 60 to 70 hours or more a week,” she says. “My credibility came from working with artists . . . and doing a good job. Then people started to say, Oh, she does well. I want to work with her. I worked hard for that. It’s a huge payoff.”

Since taking over directorship of the center, Carl has seen its budget grow from $400,000 to $1.1 million. Her research and development coffer has expanded from $5,000 to $200,000, and the money is being used to support writers from all over the country, not just Minneapolis.

“Playwriting is not a local sport,” she says. “To do it well, you need to be fully national.”

Ruth Margraff, associate professor of playwriting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a former Jerome and McKnight Fellow at the center, says Carl’s ability to expand the center nationally while preserving its local legacy is one of the hallmarks of her tenure as producing artistic director.

“Polly hasn’t forgotten that she is in Minneapolis. She knows how to keep the local community tied to the center while advancing its national profile,” through an increase in core memberships and nationally focused grants in particular, Margraff says, “She has her finger on the pulse of [theater] in the country.”

To this point, one of the plays that Carl and the center commissioned and then co-produced, along with Hidden Theatre, was Craig Lucas’ Small Tragedy. In 2004, Lucas went on to win an Obie Award for best American play.

To keep the art form alive and kicking, Carl says theater needs to capitalize upon its strength—particularly the sense of community it engenders. “Theater brings people together in a moment,” she says.

This shared experience, Carl adds, is absolutely necessary “if theater is going to survive the next 10 or even 50 years.”

Ruth Keyso is director of communications at Lake Forest Academy and the author of Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island.

_Photo of Polly Carl copyright Keri Pickett _