Community perspective: Harrisonburg as a playwriting center

A contributed Perspectives piece by Tom Arthur

Forbes Magazine listed Harrisonburg as one of the 25 best places to retire and Moneywise identified it as one of the top ten least expensive in the US. Virginia Magazine called it “The Perfect Weekend Escape” and Virginia Mainstreet named it “Virginia’s first culinary district.” The city has been praised for biking, arts, theater, and music. Residents know there are more high-quality events than they can fit into their weekend. For example, last weekend the Forbes Center presented the world premiere of “Walls,“ an original play written and directed by JMU playwriting teacher Ingrid De Sanctis.

What has escaped notice is that Harrisonburg has inspired a surprising number of playwrights, TV and screen writers in Hollywood and New York City. The story began with JMU’s first playwrighting course taught in 1975, when Professor Roger Allen Hall joined the faculty of the new theatre program. Just four years later his student Phoef Sutton won the first National Norman Lear Comedy Award for his play “The Pendragon Institute.” Sutton moved to Hollywood and went on to capture two Emmy-Awards for writing the TV series “Cheers.” Sutton’s classmate, Mark Legan, has been writing plays, sitcoms and TV pilots for NBC, CBS, FOX, and Disney in Hollywood for thirty years. Legan will share his experience as commencement speaker for JMU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts in June 2020.

Three other writers have shaped similar careers in New York. Jerome Hairston’s “Carriage” was the second JMU play to go to the Kennedy Center for the American College Theatre Festival. He premiered two plays at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and continues as a writer, producer and story editor for popular television programs including “Smash,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent “and “House of Cards.” Scott Organ’s “Phoenix,” was performed in a Humana Festival production at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. His “17 Minutes” is currently in previews for The Barrow Group and will open this month at the Mainstage Theatre in New York City. Tracy Conyer Lee’s “Rabbit Summer,” which was first done in the National New Play Network’s Women’s Voices, was recently included in New York’s “The Fire This Time” Festival.

JMU grads also write comedy on both coasts. Austin Bragg’s work has appeared on Comedy Central, The Onion AV Club, and The National Lampoon. He has produced two pilots for Warner Brothers Studio 2.0, as well as projects for Turner Broadcasting, Visa, Current TV. His short film “The Driver” won Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Actor at the 2016 in its category at the Cannes Film Festival. Barbara Hall was a writer for the Newhart show and the film, “Moonlighting,” creating “Judging Amy” while working on “Madame Secretary” and many other projects. Karen McCullah was a writer for “Legally Blonde,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and other feature films. Geoff LaTullippe authored Drew Barrymore’s film “Going the Distance;” Karla Sakas wrote “The Loud House,” for which she won a daytime Emmy Award, and eight episodes of the TV series “Animals Say the Wildest Things.”

Some JMU alumni writers work in Virginia while their plays travel around the US. In Richmond, Derome Scott Smith, founder of Richmond’s African American Repertory Theatre writes or co-creates much of the material for his company. In Loudoun County, high school drama teacher John Wells has written numerous scripts, including “Competition Piece,” one of the most popular titles in high school drama programs. Roanoke Times editor Dwayne Yancey is a much-produced playwright whose scripts are performed throughout the US, and in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea. A solid stream of dramatic playwriting also comes from Eastern Mennonite University. Seminary graduate Ted Swartz has written 18 religious plays placed “at the intersection of humor and biblical story.” After 20 years of touring performances, he continues to find enthusiastic audiences around the country. So when you turn on your TV to watch a new series or film, don’t skip the credits. Harrisonburg’s global reach might be on view. One of the writers might have lived in your home town.

 Tom Arthur is a Faculty Emeritus member of the JMU School of Theatre and Dance. He currently serves on the board of the Arts Council of the Valley.

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