Benjamin Benne’s play, Alma, opens May 5th at ArtsWest. It’s the third play Seattle audiences have been able to see, with his early work performed at Annex Theatre, Terra Incognita, and a one-act done by Forward Flux, las mariposas y los muertos.
Since leaving Seattle, he’s had some amazing opportunities and experiences, but it was clear back in 2016/17 that he had the talent and the drive necessary to propel himself into success and the writing chops that would open those doors to him. I had the lovely opportunity to chat with him this week just before opening night at ArtsWest. My most intense interest was to catch up on his most recent exploits and also to understand his journey.
Much of his early playwriting has centered on strong women, influenced by his mother, a previously undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. His themes are often an intersection of domestic relationships and poetic reveries.
His journey into playwriting started as an undergrad at California State University, Fullerton. “I was a theater major starting in acting as many do, and then went to theater education and then faculty members told me I was excelling in directing, so I changed my major to directing.
“I always wanted to teach. My father was a teacher. I still enjoy that and I’ve always been interested in working with students. And I’m really glad that in my time at Yale, I’ve been able to work on teaching and writing lesson plans and have worked teaching at the Playwright Center, and went to Duke University and did class sessions there. All in playwright.
“At CSUF I knew I belonged in theater. It was where I could find creativity and grow and I was taking playwriting and directing and found compatibility between the two in the terminology. Being a writer made me a better director. I didn’t expect that directing was also sharpening my playwriting.
“As a director trying to pick plays, I often felt like it was hard to find material for friends of mine who were often women, people of color. I thought, ‘Why don’t I write something for those actors I love so much and want to cast?’ That’s where the vision began. And I had a playwriting teacher who said bluntly, ‘You’re a good director but you really have a unique voice as a writer.”
“I got a lot of support from my playwriting teacher. I wrote a first full length play, and there was a literary manager from South Coast Rep who was invited to see a workshop reading festival where my play was read and she sat down with us and gave feedback. The play was about a live-in nanny, living with a white couple. The nanny was from Guatemala and was essentially raising their children. It explored triangulation with the parents. It combined these domestic scenes and poetic monologues which revealed backstory. I was told that, “the piece really soars with the poeticism.” That’s something that I have continued to do in my writing. There’s always some surreal or poetic aspect between realistic interactions of characters.“
“I grew up in Los Angeles, but spent summers in Tacoma where many family members lived. So, after I graduated, I felt I had always wanted to be closer to family and I moved to Tacoma. Ana Maria Campoy was at the Seattle Rep for an intern year and we’d studied together at CSUF. She helped me learn what was going on in the Seattle theater scene.
“I didn’t really feel like I could pursue directing, but didn’t start playwriting more until about 2013. My father passed away. Suddenly, I felt like if I was going to do playwriting, I should be all in. It (my father’s death) highlighted the finite nature of life. I felt like I would do better as a writer and I love writing. Here are all these feelings I had and I had things I needed to process. Writing was the right conduit.
“My early work was woman centered: creating opportunities women of color, women in general. I read a lot of plays and most roles available were for men. But I saw an incredible pool of talent with the least number of roles. I realized how many women I grew up surrounded by and they were influential and inspiring to me.
“2014/15 I became a part of Parley Productions’s first cohort with Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth. I had worked at Freehold with her and had written three plays at Freehold.
“q u e r e n c i a: an imagined autobiography about forbidden fruits was my fourth play and the first that I wrote with Parley. South Coast Rep allowed people from the LA area to send 10 pages to them. They asked to read the whole play. Their response was, ‘We don’t have space this season, but we invite you to send us a new play.’ So I sent them a play every year! I sent that same play to a workshop in NY and it was a finalist at Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Playwrights Conference and that help me get an agent.
“During this period, I had to work full time jobs. I worked at PNW Ballet and then as a tech person, 40 hours a week or even more. Every night, I was either writing my own work or in the theater trying to work with Parley or Forward Flux. In 2016, I applied to grad school. I prayed that if I’m ready to do this work, please send me a sign. That year, I was a finalist at Yale for their MFA in Playwriting, though I wasn’t accepted. But I was accepted at Iowa Playwright’s Workshop MFA progam, and I won the Many Voices Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center which was for a year in Minneapolis. I got an additional fellowship for a second year; the McKnight Fellowship in Playwriting and was able to do playwriting full time. I no longer had to work a different full time job.
“Alma was developed during the Many Voices fellowship. It was my sixth play.”
The play description says, “Alma is a single-mother and undocumented immigrant living in the US with her 17-year-old daughter, Angel. The play is set the night before Angel’s all-important SAT test. Through Benne’s poetic yet realistic writing, the realization creeps in that more’s at stake than just a test score. A sacrifice from Alma’s past weighs heavy on their present; now, Alma fears that her worst nightmare may soon be their reality. Will the American Dream cost them a life together?”
Benne continues, “It began to be to get workshopped and people started to get to know me as I traveled to various theaters. American Blues Theater in Chicago wanted to do the first full production after I won their Blue Ink Playwriting Award. There were 750 submissions!
“They scheduled opening just before Covid and they had to delay it. The timing worked out (instead) that Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre got the rights to the ‘world premiere’ production. That was March 18, 2022! It was their first production after Covid which was an awesome choice. It meant a lot to them because it references Los Angeles and the whole creative team was Latinx.
“ArtsWest programmed the ‘Seattle premiere’ of the play for May 2022. And ABT is going to be next in Fall 2022. I’ll continue to tinker with it through the Chicago production.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunity now to experiment a lot and fail a lot and it prepared me to get to a more realized and polished work.”
I asked Benne what sparks he uses to begin writing a play.
“I got accepted to Yale for their MFA in Playwriting in 2018. Because of Covid, the students during my time got an optional ‘fourth year’ to graduate and I’m graduating after my fourth year at the end of the month! I have productions of various plays coming up and will be in various cities. Another play, In His Hands, will be opening at Mosaic Theatre in Washington DC and I’ll be going there.
“South Coast Rep commissioned a play from me. It’s the Elizabeth George Commission – for an emerging playwright. They asked what I was interested in writing. And told them I wanted to write an intergenerational piece about a family from Guatemala cooking a meal together, but the meal involves experiencing where the recipe came from over generations. It’s an actual family recipe our family made. It’s never been written down and you just have to ‘know’ how to cook it. The working title is Fantasma. It means ‘ghost’ and the audience will hopefully feel like they’ve experienced the family members dying and moving on, and their desire for preservation of family history.“
“Also, my thesis for my Master’s is going to start getting workshopped in New York, and I have another play to finish my degree with to workshop at Yale. So, I have a lot of workshops in front of me!”
A lot of care has been put into the ArtsWest production and I encourage everyone to get their tickets now. You’ll have the opportunity to experience Benne’s writing and then to keep an eye out for his future works. I feel fully confident to say that he is likely to become one of America’s important theater voices in the coming years!
ArtsWest presents ALMA by Benjamin Benne May 6 – May 22, 2022. Get tickets at www.artswest.org or call the box office at (206) 938-0339.
Plot: Working mom Alma has singlehandedly raised her daughter, Angel, on tough love, home-cooked comida and lots of prayers. But on the eve of the all-important SAT, Alma discovers her daughter isn’t at home studying. A schooling and la chancla await Angel at home—but so does a creeping realization that more is at stake than just a test score. A sacrifice from Alma’s past weighs heavy on their present; now, Alma fears that her worst nightmare may soon be their reality. Will the American Dream cost them a life together?