Mission Complete: Playwright Collective Orbiter 3 Launches Its Final Show
After producing six world premieres by local writers, playwright collective Orbiter 3 brings the curtain down on its three-year project with one final play, L.M. Feldman’s A People.
“The scale of this show makes for a fitting end,” collective member Douglas Williams tells FringeArts, as he considers the company’s coda, which runs May 16-June 2, 2018, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “It’s a huge sprawling show, both in terms of story and production.”
“These are qualities producers often shy away from,” adds Emma Goidel, another founding member of the collective, “and ones Orbiter 3 set out to embrace.”
Goidel and Williams are two of creative theatermakers who form Orbiter 3. They are joined by playwrights Emily Acker, L M Feldman, Sam Henderson, James Ijames, and Mary Tuomanen — some of the best-regarded theater writers in Philadelphia — and led by artistic director Maura Krause, with associate producer Erin Washburn and company manager Cat Ramirez. Over its lifespan, Orbiter 3 has produced a play by each of its playwrights, from James Ijames’ Moon Man Walk in June/July 2015 to Sam Henderson’s The Brownings (a presentation by FringeArts) in November/December 2017.
“You can judge for yourself if you think each individual production was a success,” says Williams, looking back on the company’s output. “But, in my book, they were each artistically daring and brought a new story to Philly’s stages that audiences would not otherwise have been able to enjoy.”
Several playwrights used the opportunity to produce plays unlikely to be staged by mainstream companies. Whiting Award–winner Ijames launched Orbiter 3 with a quasi rom com that inhabited a world completely populated by African American characters. Goidel’s A Knee That Can Bend looked at a circle of queer friends in Senegal. Williams chose to use an ensemble devising process to create Breath Smoke, a piece billed as “more narrative mixtape than play.” Mary Tuomanen’s Peaceable Kingdom featured a cast of eighteen.
“Outside of a theater like The Wilma, or Walnut Street, you’re not seeing a show like that get produced in Philly, and certainly not a world premiere by a local playwright,” claims Williams. “I’m just so proud we were able to take those risks and put those stories and performers on a Philly stage.”
Pride seems to be a overriding emotion among the “Orbiters” as their project draws to a conclusion. Feldman describes the collective members as “exhausted and beaming — and profoundly proud… Proud of our work, hopeful for our legacy, and grateful to have been part of this collective and this venture.”
“It’s really a mix of sadness, pride, and exhaustion,” agrees Williams. “I’m looking forward to having my time freed up for new creative projects. But I’m also just so so proud of the body of work Orbiter has put together and am so thankful I got to do it with this specific group of people. It’s incredibly hard work, but everyone really put themselves into this 100% and I think you can see that in the quality of work we’ve been able to produce.”
Orbiter 3 has shown that it’s possible for a company to make an impact in local theater just by its very presence. “There are already so many amazing independent companies in Philly producing and creating their own work,” says Williams. “But it feels like most of them are focused on devised work.” Rather than submitting a play to a company or festival and hoping it gets produced, Orbiter showed Williams that “there’s another way to do it. Just produce the fucking thing yourself.”
The Fringe Festival sees many independent artists and companies produce original theater. Among the Orbiters, Festival audiences will remember Tuomanen’s Saint Joan, Betrayed (2013) or Alchemist (2017) and Sam Henderson’s 100 (2015). Doug Williams impressed with his collaboration on Holly’s Dead Soldiers (2013) and he, Goidel, Acker and Krause worked together on Safe Space (2014). Williams and Krause will return to the Festival this September with an as-yet-unnamed piece about Bon Iver writing his first album, from the point of view of a bear who wants to eat him.
“The energy and the audience that surrounds the Festival really makes for a supportive environment,” says Williams. But he agrees that outside the festival, there’s a relative dearth of artists writing and producing their own work in Philadelphia, especially in terms of scripted theater. “It might be that artists can feel it a bit daunting to draw focus to a single production when it isn’t tied to any larger theater, festival or existing audience base.”
Goidel points to a key ingredient: money. “Collectives of actors or makers might agree to rehearse or build a show, then shop it to presenters, and finally split the box office when it goes up somewhere. Scripted theater tends to operate under a whole different set of agreements: everyone is paid for rehearsal and performance, and the producer (and sometimes playwright) takes the box office. You need thousands and thousands of dollars to rehearse, market, and produce a play and fundraising requires lots of time and relationships. Then there’s the matter of building an audience and taking care of all the artists you hire for the show.”
“It’s hard!” agrees Feldman. “It takes so much time, and so much money, and so much energy, and so many skill sets outside of generating the art itself.”
Orbiter 3 formed in order to pool that shared skill set. “We accomplished what we set out to do,” says Goidel. “We intended to produce six plays in three years and energize Philadelphia around new plays. Since our launch, we’ve produced seven plays in three-and-a-half years, and seen a big uptick in the number of new local playwrights in seasons of theaters around town.”
The Orbiters themselves are a testament to this uptick. At one point last season, Tuomanen had three plays running in separate theaters almost simultaneously (including the FringeArts presentation Hello! Sadness!). Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise will launch the Wilma Theater’s 2018/19 season while Acker’s Boycott Esther closes Azuka Theater’s season.
But first, check out Orbiter 3’s last entry into its impressive catalog. Performances of A People begin tomorrow, with opening night Friday, May 18. Following this production, the collective will release their plays and documentation of their development as a resource for theatermakers and others who may be inspired to replicate their success. They will then dissolve as an organization.
“The goal was always to inspire local theater leadership, audiences, and artists, to get people excited about plays and writers,” says Goidel. “I believe we’ve done that.”
What: A People
When: May 16-June 2, 2018
Where: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 South 10th Street
By L.M. Feldman Directed by Rebecca Wright Lighting Design Mike Inwood Sound Design Lucas Fendlay Composer/Music Director/Sound Design Daniel Perelstein Costume Design Katherine Fritz Props & Space Design Doug Greene Dramaturgy Jeremy Stoller Stage Manager Kat Kelly Company Manager Cat Ramirez Producer Maura Krause Producing Associate Erin Washburn Featuring Aaron Bell, Richard Chan, Mal Cherifi, Eliana Fabiyi, Anita Holland, Jaime Maseda, Bianca Sanchez, Leah Walton