Why Roundabout Theatre Company Develops New Playwrights—Not Just New Plays | Playbill

Interview Why Roundabout Theatre Company Develops New Playwrights—Not Just New Plays From Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson to Usual Girls’ Ming Peiffer, Roundabout Underground aims to launch the careers of writers who will refresh the theatre canon.
Jill Rafson Marc J. Franklin

In 2007, Roundabout Theatre Company—led by artistic director Todd Haimes—converted its unused, leaking basement space into a black box theatre that would go on to launch the careers of Tony winners Stephen Karam, Steven Levenson, Ming Peiffer, Lindsey Ferrentino, Jiréh Breon Holder, and many more. Dubbed the Roundabout Underground, its mission was and remains simple: give early-career playwrights their first Off-Broadway production, and commission them to write a second play.

Each season, Roundabout produces two world premieres, develops new plays behind the scenes, and presents a popular industry reading series of unproduced works. Originally headed by Robyn Goodman, the program has been led since 2017 by Jill Rafson, Roundabout’s Associate Artistic Director. Rafson’s tireless pursuit of emerging talent—and her ongoing relationships with theatres, agents, and MFA programs around the nation—has made Roundabout a hotbed of the country’s most exciting writers and directors.

The Playwrights of Roundabout Underground: Stephen Karam, David West Read, Adam Gwon, Lindsey Ferrentino, Jiréh Breon Holder, Andrew Hinderaker, Kimberley Rosenstock, Steven Levenson, Joshua Harmon, Jenny Rachel Weiner, Meghan Kennedy, and Martín Zimmerman. Not pictured: Jeff Augustin

Part of the secret to her success is a big-picture mentality. “[Roundabout] is in it for the long haul,” says Rafson. “My approach isn’t to find a good play by a new artist; my job is to find an artist whose voice we think is going to stand up in the long term.”

For Rafson, this has meant finding ways to invest in writers beyond development opportunities, whether it’s by providing writing space, facilitating new collaborations, or simply through constant communication. Her ethos of open dialogue doesn’t just ensure playwrights feel supported, but that Underground maintains an “artist-forward approach.” Through listening to Underground’s young writers and directors, Rafson has learned that “there’s no template for developing a play.” This has translated to a flexibility that allows new works to be built from the ground up in ways that cater to both the play and the artists’ specific needs.

“I don’t think we’re done [expanding],” says Rafson. Because Roundabout isn’t just interested in launching and sustaining artists, its big-picture approach applies to the industry as a whole. “If we’re going to do new plays it has to have a purpose,” says Rafson. “It’s about refreshing the canon… If we start cultivating these voices now, they’re going to write the [shows] that become the classics of tomorrow.”

As a lifelong theatre lover, Rafson couldn’t have dreamed of a better place to channel her passion. “I love that we’re affecting the future of American theatre by what we’re doing in the present,” she says. “What a privilege it is.”

Production Photos: Roundabout Underground’s Usual Girls

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