By Emily Resnevic
Jamaica Plain playwright Stefan Lanfer has written a play titled “An Education in Prudence,” which will be directed by Pascale Florestal and performed at St. John’s Church this month. The play is produced in collaboration with Open Theatre Project, a theater company which aims to broaden the range of voices represented in theater. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session with Lanfer about the player. The session has been edited.
(The play will be shown Feb. 9-24 and tickets are $25 for general admission or $18 for students, seniors, or members. The company also features pay-what-you-can performances. For more information, visit TheOpenTheatre.com.)
Q.: What is the premise of “An Education in Prudence”?
A.: The premise of the play is also the tagline on our posters – “The past isn’t behind us.” It tells the story of America’s first attempt at an integrated school in 1830s Connecticut and traces the journey of the women who sacrificed everything for a chance at an education.
Q.: What kinds of discussions do you hope members of your audience will have after seeing your play?
A.: Discussions with people who don’t look or think the way we do, and where we enter into conversation more intent on understanding than being understood.
Q.: What inspired you to write it?
A.: I was inspired by a chance meeting with a complete stranger and her passion for a story she was so determined to share with the world that she was willing to entrust it to an unknown playwright whose work she’d never seen.
Q.: What was the production process like from the beginning until now?
A.: That first meeting happened in spring, 2013. Nine months later, I finished a draft and started submitting it to theatres and festivals. I thought it was ready and only needed a theatre to produce it. I was wrong. I hadn’t found the right collaborators yet. That’s true. But, in hindsight, the work wasn’t nearly ready. Neither were the times.
By spring 2016, I’d received over 80 rejection letters. I was feeling down, out of gas with the project, and fairly sure the universe was telling me it was time to swallow my pride, cut my losses, and move on. But then – another chance meeting – I was at a new play festival and met Dustin Bell, founder of Open Theatre Project (OTP).
A few weeks later, Dustin said OTP wanted to produce my play and, significantly, to give it whatever development support it needed. Since then, over the last two years, OTP organized three table readings (i.e., script work sessions with actors, a director, and OTP members), a public reading at Bella Luna Cafe in JP (to test and learn from audience reactions), a chance to work with a formal New Play Developer Alex Smith, co-director of education at Huntington Theatre Company, a spectacular dramaturge Phaedra Michelle Scott (like a playwrights’ personal creative trainer), and an amazingly talented group of theatre artists.
Along the way I’ve rewritten the play several times over, writing in a new protagonist, a new title, and a new way to use time – so that the play is now looking at these events of 1833, and one of the first desegregation battles in the United States through the lens of today.
Q.: There seems to be quite a bit of Jamaica Plain residents in this production. Can you explain the Jamaica Plain connections? Is JP a supportive place for playwrights and actors?
A.: There is so much creativity in JP – and many JP connections to this project. My family and I have lived in JP since 2001. Open Theatre Project is theatre-in-residence at St. John’s Church. Mary O’Donnell, one of our actors, is a longtime JP resident, and is a board member at JP’s own Footlight Club. We held our public reading at Bella Luna Cafe. And JP is full of friends who have encouraged me throughout this play’s long journey – including my fellow runners in the GreenAndRockview group, helping me puzzle out its many problem spots on our early morning loops of the Pond, the Arboretum, and Franklin Park.
Q.: Can you tell us a bit about other plays you’ve worked on in the past, and any ideas you have for the future?
A.: Playwriting has always been the thing I do early, early in the morning before our kids wake up, and before heading off to my day job. So, other plays are few and far between. But some highlights include – two 10-minute plays that had life in Boston: Hadron Collision Therapy, which I started at the Playwrights’ Platform and was part of the Boston Theatre Marathon in 2013, and Allston Christmas, which was part of Fresh Ink’s Mad Dash (eight plays written, rehearsed, and performed all within 24 hours); Gary Grinkle’s Battles with Wrinkles and Other Troubles in Mudgeville, a children’s play that was first produced by Long Wharf Theatre in 2000, but is now most often done by middle and high school theatre groups. Many JP friends and their families joined me and ours to see Brockton High School take that show to the state drama championships at Hynes Auditorium in Back Bay. In 2004, Book-it Repertory Theatre in Seattle produced my adaptation of Cry, The Beloved Country.
I have no idea what I’ll work on next. Once the dust settles from “An Education in Prudence,” I am hoping some new stranger will cross a crowded room, and that I’ll have sense enough to listen closely.