A New Perspective: The Playhouse Features Rising Playwright Jen Silverman

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
In 2015, American Theatre interviewed the playwrights featured at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. One of them was then newcomer Jen Silverman, who premiered The Roommate—a two-hander play about a 50-something divorced woman who finds a roommate for her Iowa home.

Silverman says in her interview, “In a lot of my plays—the ones with many more characters—I’m really interested in this question of how do you transform and can we transform and what does it take to become the thing that we want to become and can we? Can we ever become something other than what we are? And how do people make us different without even realizing it?”

Transformation is certainly the predominant theme in one of her latest plays All the Roads Home, the world premiere of which opens this month at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

The story follows three generations of women in the same family who wrestle with lifelong dreams, and features the circumstances that contribute to their successes and shortcomings. Each of the characters inherits similar, creative talents from their mother, as well as the tension surrounding their legacies. The story ultimately asks if we have the power to change within ourselves.

We should probably mention that Dolly Parton (in character form) also makes an appearance in the play. It’s a charming and bold addition—and it’s pure Silverman.

In a 2016 interview with Playwrights Center, Silverman describes her artistic objective as follows: “I want to write aggressive, highly-structured, darkly comedic plays, often involving women or queer characters, often exploring various facets of identity and legacy and home-coming and institutional violence. And sometimes I want to explore those things via talking skinned cats (Wink) or depressive mastiffs (The Moors) or butch Betty Boops (Collective Rage).”

Silverman isn’t being facetious. Each of her works includes a highly specific character and world that’s loaded with limitless connotation and symbolism.

Take, for example, the mastiff she mentions in The Moors. The play is a creatively scribed, 19th-century Gothic story about Brontë-esque sisters who live in England with said depressive mastiff, and they find their lives upended when both a young governess and a moor-hen arrive. Collective Rage is built around five different Betty Boop characters, the full title of which is Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops; In Essence a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Arctic?; Imagine the Arctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That. And Wink, as stated, has a talking skinned cat.

There isn’t anything gimmicky about these nuances. Silverman isn’t playing the audience like a fiddle. Literary Director at South Coast Rep Kimberly Colburn says in a 2016 interview, “In all of her work, she’s got something to say; she’s not writing for the sake of writing. It feels like she is the origin point. She finds a point of inspiration, or a new way of looking at the world, and chooses to harness that by writing about it in a play.”

Much of that “new way of looking” can be attributed to Silverman’s unique upbringing. As a child, she traveled across the globe with her parents and lived in the U.S., Japan, France, Finland, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand and Canada. She majored in comparative literature at Brown University, earned an MFA in Playwriting from the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop and studied at the Playwrights Program at Julliard. She speaks four languages, calls herself a nomad and possesses a relentless curiosity about existential concepts and the people who embody them.

To say that Silverman has shaken up the world of traditional theatre is an understatement. She is currently the recipient of the prestigious 2016-2017 Playwrights of New York (PoNY) residency at the Lark. She’s also a recipient of The Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, a Leah Ryan Fellowship/Lilly Award, The Inge Center’s Otis Guernsey New Voices Award and the Helen Merrill Fund Award for emerging playwrights. She’s a two-time MacDowell Fellow and is currently an affiliated artist with theatres across the country. Most recently, Silverman was named a finalist for the 2017 Susan Smith Black Award—the largest prize awarded to female playwrights—for The Moors.

Additional titles penned by Silverman include Phoebe in Winter, Still, That Poor Girl and How He Killed Her, The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane and Wondrous Strange. Read about Silverman’s travels and productions of her work on her blog.

All the Roads Home was workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2013 and you can catch the world premiere at the Playhouse from March 25 to April 23. To learn more about the Playhouse production of All the Roads Home, visit the production detail page.