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The Plays of a Generation

Derek Walcott on 25 years at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre

Derek Walcott, founder of the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, spoke about BPT’s history from his home in Trinidad.

When Derek Walcott arrived at Boston University in 1981 to teach poetry and playwriting, the theater was already his second home. After founding the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, he went on to study and produce theater throughout the United States and the Caribbean, winning numerous awards and honors. But as a playwright, he was repeatedly frustrated by the disconnect he observed between the writer’s process and the finished production.

“There was no real exchange between the playwright and the actor — that was the thing I’d experienced as a playwright, both in America and in the Caribbean,” says Walcott (Hon.’93), the 1984 Nobel laureate for poetry and a College of Arts and Sciences professor who teaches in the Creative Writing Program. “And I thought the thing that would be best for any playwright was to have a program in which the actors and the playwright would relate immediately, and the actors would help in terms of the shaping of the script.”

Walcott received a five-year genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation the same year he arrived at BU, and he used part of the award to create the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT). Developed in collaboration with the University’s Creative Writing Program, the Playwrights’ Theatre took up residence at 949 Commonwealth Ave. in 1982. Since then it has hosted a generation’s worth of classes, workshops, and new plays, helping creative writing students refine their work for performance.

The program’s alumni have had great success in the theater world. Ronan Noone (GRS’01), whose BPT production of The Lepers of Baile Baste won the National Student Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in 2002, went on to win multiple awards from the Independent Reviewers of New England and has had two pieces produced in off-Broadway theaters. Melinda Lopez (GRS’00) won the Kennedy Center award for Most Promising New Voice in the American Theatre in 1999, and her play Sonia Flew was produced by the Huntington Theatre Company in 2004.

Now run by artistic director Kate Snodgrass (GRS’90), the BPT is launching its 25th anniversary season this month with a production of King of the Jews, adapted by Leslie Epstein, director of the Creative Writing Program, from his acclaimed 1979 novel of the same name. In addition, the organization is celebrating its success as a mainstay of the Boston theater scene with a commemorative chapbook, which can be purchased at the BPT Web site, featuring photos of previous productions and interviews with alumni and faculty who have watched the program grow.

“I have such a great pride in the fact that it is still a success — as much pride as I do in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop,” Walcott says. “Keeping it going is the big thing.”

King of the Jews runs from February 21 through March 10 at the Boston University Theatre’s Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. The evening performance on Saturday, February 24, begins at 7 p.m. and features a talk-back with the playwright, Leslie Epstein. Discounted tickets are available for BU students, faculty, and staff. For more information, call 617-353-5443 or visit the BPT Web site.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.