Brooklyn College alumna Kate Benson’s Obie-Award Winning production opens in new venue

December 7, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Kate Benson. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn College
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Brooklyn College alumna Kate Benson (’14 MFA) was clear when she described her Obie-award winning play, “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes” — which opens Dec. 15 at the Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea, Massachusetts — as a collaboration. “Because it had no stage directions, Lee and I spent a year reading it before we could start rehearsals. And while the text is all mine, the choreography is all hers,” Benson said of the play’s director Lee Sunday Evans, with whom Benson shared the 2015 Special Citation Obie.

The farce, which debuted in January at the New Georges Theater in Manhattan, imagines Thanksgiving dinner as a competitive sport played by four generations of the Wembly family. By the time the grandchildren get involved, the “game” goes off the rails.

“It isn’t quite a dance piece,” she said, “but it has music, and actors developed their rhythms, while two announcers describe the action from a ‘newsroom’ area. We decided to let the audience listen and imagine as much as possible, which is very Greek, I suppose.”

With her Obie win last spring, Benson joined a long line of experimental playwrights from the Brooklyn College MFA Playwriting program, including Young Jean Lee ’05, Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker ’07, Tina Satter ’08, and Kelly Copper ’10 and MFA candidate Clare Barron, who have also earned Obies for their off-Broadway productions.

Benson’s start in theater began when she earned a bachelor’s degree in acting at New York University, then attended the Stella Adler Studio. She was working on a production of Anton Chekov’s “Three Sisters” when the director asked her if she was a writer — Benson said she was, although she had been doing it on the side. The director suggested that she try the playwright and directing lab at the New Georges Theater Company in Manhattan. Erin Courtney, a Guggenheim fellow and Brooklyn College lecturer who teaches there, attended the 2011 reading of Benson’s first play, “Radium,” about Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist who did pioneering work in radioactivity, and asked Benson if she’d like to join the MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College.

“I had worked for people who’d been through the program, like Thomas Bradshaw ’04 and Sibyl Kempson ’07,” said Benson. She was also a longtime admirer of Courtney as well as the director of the program, CUNY Distinguished Professor Mac Wellman. She was admitted in 2012.

In addition to taking modernist poetry with Marjorie Welish, the Madeline Leventhal Rand chair in literature, Benson read everything from pre-Socratic philosophers to Melville to Proust to Heidegger. The curriculum was expansive, she said, and there were no rigid rules handed down as to what a play should or should not be, a very different experience than in her undergraduate years. In the MFA program, “everything you read will find its way back into your writing,” Benson said.

The then-graduate student wrote “Great Lakes” for a class during her second semester. “But as good as a play, any play, can be when you read it,” Benson said,  “it is still inert without translating it into action,” which she was able to do with great success.

Benson’s play, “I Will Look Forward to this Later,” co-written with Emily Perkins-Margolin, directed by Jess Chayes and produced and developed with the Assembly, will premiere at the New Ohio Theater in April 2016. And “Radium Now” will be staged in May 2016 through Brooklyn College’s New Workshop Theater. Graduate student Christina Roussos ’16 will direct it as part of her thesis.   

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