This week on HowlRound, we continue our series on Triple Play, a consortium project between Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area. Triple Play is exploring the crucial triangular relationship between playwrights, theatres, and audiences with the hope of creating a paradigm shift in the way the field thinks about audiences and the way audiences experience new work. Now in phase two, Triple Play is midway through 300 interviews between playwrights and audience members around the country. This series will share best practices in audience engagement and question how we define the relationship between artists, theatre companies, and audiences. In this piece, playwright Karen Hartman writes about her experience as part of the New Play Frontiers program at People’s Light in Malvern, Pennsylvania. New Play Frontiers is an initiative to conceive, develop, and produce new plays that explore American identity through stories of deep meaning to specific populations in the five-county region that surround our theatre.—Alli Houseworth, series curator 

Zak Berkman’s invitation to apply for New Play Frontiers came right when I craved more reality. I had just spent a weekend in Destin, Florida, interviewing an 86-year-old man whose life was saved as a fluke when he fled 1939 Poland as the ward of a stranger. That same fall, Superstorm Sandy knocked New York City to its knees. I couldn’t afford to cancel my intensive playwriting workshop, so I walked, and twice drove our 1994 Oldsmobile, through a deserted city, hauling coffee and boiled eggs. The city was silent, damp, and dark. A couple of bodegas sold nonperishables by candlelight and cash. I wanted to feed displaced people and bring them blankets (and I did some of that), but also to exist in that raw state in which everyone lets each other in.

As a writer, if you’re lucky, you lead a rarefied adulthood. Maybe you never have a boss in the conventional sense, or feel the boom and bust of an economic cycle (because there is no boom). You elevate your inner life as if it’s real because it is your one precious source. And you skip a lot of crap, but at some point you’re looking at middle age knowing you might never make a damn bit of concrete difference to this world. Most plays don’t matter to most people who see them, and most plays are not seen by many people, so a writer needs an insane confluence of urgency and success to have any impact at all that might resemble, say, bringing Christmas dinner for a hundred to a rec center in Staten Island.

So the possibility of joining a theatrical project rooted in actual other human beings seemed exactly, desperately right. Even better, it came from Zak (whom I knew a bit) at People’s Light, a company I was curious about.

I understood (mistakenly) that the first round of projects would focus on the Underground Railroad. I landed on the idea of a Safe House, where a person goes to transition from being property to being an independent human. I wanted to look at such a place of refuge and transformation in a contemporary context. Pennsylvania, an early leader in abolitionism and a battleground for the Fugitive Slave Act, is now a hotspot for drug and sex trafficking, partially for the same reason—its central location on the Eastern Corridor (I-95 is as critical now as the Delaware River 200 years ago). I was interested in human trafficking because of the parallel to slavery and because the question of legalizing prostitution divides the left, and those are my favorite moral issues: real grey area.

In the initial phase of New Play Frontiers, two other playwrights (Eisa Davis and Kathryn Petersen) and I met with about a dozen community groups in the course of a week, organized by the project coordinator Vern Thiessen. We spent a couple of hours with two “graduates” of Dawn’s Place, a shelter alternative for women who are victims of commercial sex exploitation (CSE is a term that bridges a gap between the legal definition of trafficking and the functional lack of choice facing most street prostitutes). It was a wrenching, riveting morning of listening.

I interviewed the founders of Dawn’s Place, four nuns and a lawyer, Mary DeFusco. Mary suggested I sit in on the court she had also founded, for women with prostitution convictions but no other crimes. Two weeks later I slipped into that court, introduced very briefly by Mary, and took notes but didn’t record.

staff photo
Karen with staff members from the Project Dawn Court in August 2015.

In Project Dawn Court I found ritual, action, stakes, and humanity. That was the play. I kept coming back, a fly on the wall for these monthly sessions, which are long, and both formulaic and intense. Each of the fifty or so women stands up to give her report. Some are brief and some highly emotional. Some celebrate milestones of success or recovery; some get sentenced to jail from the courtroom.

I interviewed the staff. I interviewed those participants whom the staff considered stable enough to talk to me. Each would start with some version of, “My life could be a movie, I swear.”

I got to be friends with some of the staff members. I love these women. I wish I were more like them. They are warriors with wicked humor. On the other hand, their court is controversial because the women must plead guilty in order to participate, so there is a question of people giving up civil liberties without understanding the possible consequences. So I worship these staff members but don’t always agree with them.

The research process took a year, and the writing was another year.

In the summer of 2015, People’s Light did a workshop of Project Dawn in Malvern, a Philadelphia suburb. I wanted to do a reading of at least part of the play in downtown Philly during the workday, for the court participants and the staff. None of the court participants came to that mini-reading in, only the staff, and they went nuts. They saw themselves. The next night they all came to Malvern for the full reading and they brought their families. The court judge, who happens to be President Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and had granted me all of ten minutes of interview time during the year, brought her husband. Out of 180 or so people at that reading, approximately thirty were directly connected to the court, and there were another ten or fifteen in the audience who work on human trafficking issues in Malvern.

a group of actors in a staged reading
Project Dawn reading in August 2015.

For the staff of Project Dawn Court, who labors pretty unseen, on zero budget, on behalf of women who are even more unseen and totally impoverished, there was a kind of light in the room. They already knew the sad parts of the story: the grim outcomes, the suffering. I dosed the script with as much humor as possible, and I think I constructed the staff as I see them, which is as heroes.

The conversation afterwards was so different from the usual post-play discussion, not only among the staff who were present but the rest of the People’s Light audience. too. They wanted to speak about the issues raised by the piece, not so much about what “worked” or didn’t. I liked the moral outrage and the shared understanding that this is happening, not necessarily on “our” doorstep (remember it’s a suburban theatre) but in our county, under our state and local leadership.

I wrote to the Project Dawn Court staff to ask for any corrections, and most said I got it right, or offered small procedural fixes, but there were a couple of larger questions. For example, the fictional public defender in Project Dawn has substantial home drama, made worse by an unsupportive husband. I got an e-mail saying, “We can do this work because our husbands are amazing. Why the stereotype of the overwhelmed working mom?” It was a great point. So while I left that character alone (because the lack of support is crucial to her storyline), I gave another character a great husband and kids.

Then there was an issue I couldn’t fix. The Parole Officer in the real court is an insightful public safety vet trusted by both the court participants and the staff; she is tough but hilarious. However, in the first draft everything the Parole Officer had to say was procedural; the character went flat. So Project Dawn the play has no PO, which is a disservice to Linda Muraresku, because she’s the heart of the operation.

In theatre you’re always streamlining and simplifying to tell the story effectively. And to portray this court, with all its procedures, rules, and voices, I streamline quite a lot. But because the participants might come see the play, I try harder not to simplify in the direction of stereotype.

Our brains work so effectively to slot information into pre-fabricated categories. Art should push back on that, make new categories, but unfortunately those stereotypes are lodged inside artists, too. Observing the shapes and patterns of actual other lives has expanded my emotional circuitry, and I hope enabled my work to be a little more useful.