Arts, Features

Student playwright captures complex familial bonds in thesis project

The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University is not letting the pandemic hold performers and writers back. While workshops among the cast and crew are still active, the BPT recently created an outlet for its audience to stay involved as well.

In the third installment of the Boston Playwright Theater’s “BPT Talks” series, BPT playwright Cayenne Douglass took her audience behind the scenes of her thesis play “Beasts.” COURTESY OF BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS THEATER

The theater hosts weekly “BPT Talks,” during which a third-year Master of Fine Arts playwright at BPT discusses their latest work.

In the third installment of the series on Tuesday, BPT playwright Cayenne Douglass gave a behind-the-scenes look at the writing, development and workshopping of her thesis play, “Beasts,” over Zoom.

Douglass said during the discussion she began the writing process while in quarantine over the summer and had a completed first draft in three days.

“Beasts” explores the dynamic between two sisters, Fran and Judy, with clashing personalities. The play touches on themes of womanhood, pregnancy and motherhood as well as the complexities of sibling relationships, Douglass said, even though she herself does not have a sister.

“I found myself surrounded by women that were becoming pregnant and talking about the loneliness associated with that,” Douglass said, “or people who were not pregnant and also felt alienated from that experience and from their friends in that way.”

Though Douglass is finishing her coursework for the MFA Playwriting program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, she is a seasoned playwright with four full-length plays, one full-length musical and a number of shorter one-act and 10-minute plays.

BPT Artistic Director Kate Snodgrass, who moderated the talk, worked with her team at BPT to brainstorm ways to keep the community involved while the artists worked digitally on Douglass’ and others’ plays.

“We wanted to remind our audiences that we’re still alive and we’re still working,” Snodgrass said. “Normally during the semester … we would be producing our graduating class of MFA playwrights’ plays fully for an audience, fully drawn with sets and lights and costume and rehearsals.”

Now, without the ability to stage performances and meet in person, BPT’s plan for its playwrights and actors includes stringing out students’ productions over the course of two semesters. Douglass’ play is likely to be performed next Fall, Snodgrass said.

“We will have a reading periodically until we produce the play,” Snodgrass said. “Next year, we’ll have five fully produced plays, and they will be coming from this workshop this semester.”

Both directors working with Douglass, Director Kelly Galvin and Assistant Director Kolton Bradley joined her at her talk on Tuesday.

Galvin, who received her MFA in directing and a certificate in arts administration at BU, said her personal relationship with her siblings allowed her to resonate with “Beasts.” She said she is at the age where her own sisters are beginning to have or try for children.

“It’s been both very joyful and painful, and my relationships with my sisters are primarily some of my most important relationships in my life,” Galvin said during the event. “But at the same time, the acceptable societal narratives about womanhood and pregnancy and motherhood are very fixed and very narrow.”

For Bradley, aspects of the play aside from pregnancy and motherhood helped him connect to the story. When he was growing up with his younger sister, the two had a similar relationship to Fran and Judy’s, he said during the talk.

“It’s something about growing up with a sibling,” Bradley said. “They know how to get under your skin in a way that nobody else on this Earth can. I’m appreciating that, watching that dynamic.”

Douglass’ plays have won an array of awards, including several nods from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Calling Douglass “a wonder,” Snodgrass said the playwright’s shows always tackle issues “deeply important” to society.

“They’re always centered on the human existence and our relationships,” Snodgrass said, “so not only do we come away feeling something for her characters, but we’re also intellectually drawn in, and we’re talking about her plays after we see them.”

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