A playwright is one of those jobs in the theater world that many people don’t yet fully understand and which are essential to the success of a show.
The playwright works with the playwright and the creative team to support the development of a show by asking key questions, initiating conversations, doing research, providing context, and helping artists work together to give life in the book.
Yet playwrights remain some of the unsung heroes of the theatrical process.
Ken Cerniglia, veteran playwright and writer, directed the groundbreaking hits of Broadway Hadestown and Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as countless tours and productions rooted here in DC.
He likes to compare the playwright to a book publisher or a movie publisher – someone who works with creators to try to deliver the best possible product in terms of text, context, and meaning structure.
“In the theater, it is about bringing the history of the theater to their knowledge of dramatic literature: what is our genre, what are we trying to achieve? he explains.
In the case of Hadestown, which deals with popular myths, folk music and Americana, Cerniglia examines how the text of the show fits into the context of this history and culture.
“Part of my role as a playwright is just to ask these questions and understand the big ideas that each of these characters represents,” Cerniglia said. “To ask for information about the structures of meaning and the structures of arcs of character and how we can really understand what is going on.”
His advice led to changes in the lyrics, story, and framing of the various characters.
Most playwrights have a combination of theatrical studies. Cerniglia, who went to Catholic University to earn a master’s degree in theater history, also holds a doctorate. in History and Theater Criticism from the University of Washington.
His first professional gig was as a literary intern at the Arena Stage in DC, where in 1997 he was playwright for A touch of a poet, directed by Michael Kahn, then playwright a new play by Jon Klein entitled Weakly perceived threats to the system, directed by Doug Wager.
“I worked with two eminent directors who took me seriously as a playwright, and for each of the shows I did different research and preparation,” Cerniglia said. “For Eugene O’Neill’s show, I did some historical research and was an extra pair of eyes and ears in the room when Michael was directing. With the new piece, I was able to give some comments and have conversations about the structures and meaning as he wrote it. This has led to changes and rewrites.
Cerniglia is soon part of the sales organization Literary Directors and Playwrights of the Americas and used one of his connections to become resident playwright and literary director for Disney Theatrical Productions.
In 16 years of collaboration with Disney, Cerniglia has contributed to the development of more than 70 titles for the stage, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Horrible friday, Aladdin, News, The little Mermaid, Musical high school, and Tarzan.
This has allowed him to work with some of the most notable actors, composers, directors and writers including Tom Kitt, Phil Collins, Alan Menken, Casey Nicholaw, Stephen Schwartz and many more.
It was during this time that he was working on the first Disney play, Peter and the Starcatcher, and that led him to get a call about Hadestown. He met the creators and producers, and after studying Greek theater in school, Cerniglia was knowledgeable and was offered the job as a freelance writer.
In the year leading up to the show’s first airing at the New York City Theater Workshop, Cerniglia was invited to participate full-time as she continued her trade route to Canada, London and eventually Broadway.
“I’ve been with her ever since, and it’s been a fantastic race,” he said. “Some of the things I brought to the show were structural issues. One of the first things I asked was which characters change from the beginning to the end of the story, and which remain constant. “
For example, Hermes, the narrator, as well as the Fates, were considered more consistent, while the two groups of lovers – Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone – all take journeys that see them change.
“I try to put myself in the audience’s shoes and ask myself, ‘What do they need to know? ” “, did he declare. “Some things were originally taken for granted about Orpheus and Eurydice when we started, but we found that not everyone knew this story, so we had to tell the myth from zero to welcome the audience into history. “
As Cerniglia’s job as a playwright is primarily to develop a show, once opening night arrives there isn’t much to do. However, as the show is now on tour, with the setting adjusted, he returned to rehearsals and helped the new actors find their way with the roles, answering any questions along the way.
The national tour of Hadestown currently playing at Kennedy Center until Halloween. Cerniglia is no stranger to the DC Theater, as he has also been a force at Kennedy Center, working as a playwright and advisor for the New Visions / New Voices festival since 2012 and as a playwright on its productions of OLIVÉRIo: a Brazilian touch and Bud, not buddy.
For the future, Cerniglia has exciting projects on the bridge. He recently designed and developed Spotlight on wonders, a collection of one-act plays with teenage superhero protagonists tackling real-world issues in a diverse society, and he writes and searches for new perspectives as a playwright.
“It’s exciting as I look for new opportunities,” he said. “I’m also coming to a point in my career where it’s time to give back, so I’m mentoring other playwrights and championing the field because it’s less well known than some of its sister specialties. I can’t wait to see what awaits us in this post-pandemic theatrical world. “
To see the Hadestown digital program here.
Kennedy Center’s COVID security plan is here.
In ‘Hadestown’ at Kennedy Center, a wildly exciting theatrical carnival (reviewed by Jordan Wright)
Explosively beautiful ‘Hadestown’ descends at Kennedy Center (Chronicle of Sophia Howes)