Palm Beach Dramaworks is the place to go to see a good balance of lavish revivals of classic plays with world premieres, several of which have come from its annual New Year New Play Festival. The theater is bringing playwrights from other places with stories that are raw, surprising, and entertaining—stories that reflect the precarious reality we live in now. Many of these are plays written by women who have stories to tell because they have been watching, listening, and writing. And one of those women in particular has been invited to be the theater’s first artist-in-residence playwright.
In conversation with playwright Jenny Connell Davis, she explains how PBD’s Artistic Director William Hayes is kicking off the theater’s new season with a new plan to produce more in-house productions, like this season’s world premiere of The Messenger —set to run from December 8 – 24. In a candid chat, Davis talks about the stories she wants to tell and why she’s stoked about female playwrights being on the rise—with a spotlight on the women who write plays about women in history.
Maritza Cosano: What brought you to Palm Beach Dramaworks?
Jenny Connell Davis: About three years ago, I got a call from Bruce Linser, who is Palm Beach Dramaworkshop’s manager and director. PBD had received a play of mine and he asked me if I’d be interested in coming down to be part of the Palm Beach Dramaworks Festival. When I arrived at Palm Beach Airport, Bruce was there waiting for me. I took one look at him and there was something about him that seemed like we were old friends. We clicked right away. Then, I met Bill [William Hayes] and thought he had really good things to say.
Tell me about the play that piqued their interest.
It’s called As I See It. The story is about the painter Alice Neel and the poet Frank O’Hara, whose lives intersected in New York. The two portraits she painted of him in five sittings are so shockingly different, and the story is about what happened during those sittings.
Is that play being produced too?
Well, not at this time. There are complications with it. Bill thought we were not going to be able to show most of the work that gets discussed in the play. But he did have another play in mind. He was looking for the right playwright to write a story about a woman named Georgia Gabor.
So, now you are invited to bring something new to the table. Tell me about Gabor’s story.
Georgia Gabor was a Hungarian immigrant whose entire family was killed by the Nazis in World War II. She self-published a book about her experience. Her daughter, who is a patron of Palm Beach Dramaworks, told Bill about her mom’s life and stories. As he listened, he knew there was a play there. And, he wanted a woman playwright to write the story.
Female playwrights have been passed over for male playwrights at almost every theater in the country—not because men write better plays, but because of prejudice. So, this says a lot about PBD and certainly about Bill’s vision to hire more female playwrights.
True. More women’s plays should be done. Though I don’t think gender should elevate one play over another. It should be about the value of the work.
Is ‘The Messenger’ categorized as a Holocaust or World War II type of play?
There are some really beautiful World War II plays out there, but when I started my research, I discovered more about her life after she came to the US. Her struggles didn’t end once she got here, as she became a very vocal educator on all things Holocaust. And ultimately that caused her a lot of hardship because there were a lot of people who did not want to hear the stories she had to tell. She saw herself as a messenger. She was convinced throughout her life that the reason she survived was to be able to tell her own story and to tell the stories of the people who didn’t make it.
At what point in your conversation with Bill did it go from you writing this play to becoming PBD’s first artist-in-residence playwright?
It started after the first draft of The Messenger. I think he’d already had in the back of his head that having a resident playwright was something that he wanted to do, but it was sort of like, where’s the right match for the theater, and for what he wants to do with it. When he saw the first draft of The Messenger, he was like, ‘Okay, I can work with this girl.’ And part of it is that he and I are both really interested in how you can use theater to crack open history.
Like teaching history in a classroom, but in a theater?
Yes, exactly! That idea of theater that makes you think is PBD’s mantra, but it’s pretty close to my heart, too.
What’s next after ‘The Messenger’?
Bill brought me three or four ideas and all but one of them I was like, I’m not the right girl for that one. And so, the fact that we can have that back and forth, where I’m pretty clear if there’s a play that I’m like, I don’t see a way in on that one, is a good thing.
You live in Texas, so how does the Artist-in-Residence work for you and PBD?
This was a question that I asked Bill. Today, being an artist in residence can mean so many different things. I mean, it can mean that you’re expected to have an office and be at a desk at the theater all the time, or it can mean that you’re supposed to come in eight times a year and do something. I have two young kids. So, for me, it means, as Bill described it, I’ll always be somewhere in the process of a commission with PBD. For how long? Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean a play a year. And, it’s certainly not as though I’m the only playwright that Palm Beach Dramaworks is working with. I’m not taking up all the new play oxygen, which I think is really important, and Bill thinks so too.
As a female playwright, how does having this position help you elevate the untold female stories?
I think that it’s going to be the best place for those plays that I want to explore. In the last several years, it’s become clearer to me that a lot of things I write are going to be about reexamining forgotten or misunderstood female figures in history. Think about the kind of women who showed up in Hamilton who I still think got the short end of the stick as much (as I love that musical). These characters are part of the American tapestry, and their stories have been left untold, other than in direct relationship to the man they were standing by.
And how about the modern woman? There are so many stories that are still untold.
Of course, there are lots. I think it’s also finding ones where I feel like I’m equipped to tell the story. In The Messenger, we’ve got four different women. One of them is from 2020, a young Asian American woman. I think if it were strictly a play about Asian American women, I’d be like, this is not my play. The reason I feel like I can tell her story is because it’s connecting the dots between these different women from 2020 all the way back to WWII. In terms of specific modern women, are there contemporary stories and characters I want to explore? Yes, but I haven’t landed on specific ones yet.
What inspires your plays? Do you shy away from writing tough stories?
I started as an actress, and the nice thing about being a playwright is that your work can have a life beyond your own time with it. It’s been a hard few years for everybody finding plays that don’t shy away from hard stuff but can give us points of connection, points of joy, points of hope—that are asking us to think toward how to make things better or just to have a good time at the theater. There’s room for that. And that inspires me. Theater is the place where we can imagine our way toward who we want to be, and what we want the world to look like.