Philly playwrights collective plans three-year run

 Barrymore Award winner James Ijames will launch Orbiter 3 with his play, 'Moon Man Walk.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Barrymore Award winner James Ijames will launch Orbiter 3 with his play, 'Moon Man Walk.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“If you want a happy ending,” filmmaker Orson Welles once said, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

A new Philadelphia theater collective hopes three years is an appropriate time to find that happy ending.

Orbiter3, made up  of six local playwrights, will stage one new play written by each member. After three years, two plays per year, the collective will dissolve.

The first production has just opened at the Prince Theater in Center City. “Moon Man Walk,” by James Ijames, is about a man’s relationship with his deceased mother and absent father.

“I knew I wanted there to be a lie in it, and the lie grows into something beautiful,” said Ijames during a rehearsal break last week. “In this story, the mother is trying to explain something unexplainable. She uses a tall tale. She makes the father figure 10 feet tall. I wanted to play with that. I felt there was something theatrical in that.”

The protagonist must navigate a new love interest and the old lies his mother had told him about why his father was never around. The story is not about Ijames, but it’s close.

“This play is incredibly scary, because it’s super-vulnerable,” said Ijames (pronounced Imes). “It’s not autobiographical, but the emotional journey is completely autobiographical. I’ve applied my emotional state to someone else’s story.”

Ijames is a Barrymore award-winning actor relatively new to play writing, with just two productions under his belt. Last year’s “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” was well received, and he was recently named a Pew Foundation fellow.

Even with a rising reputation, he says it is unlikely an established theater company would take a chance on this play. As a founding member of Orbiter3, he gets to decide when and how this story gets to the stage.

“We do have control over how we’re seen, the content, what we choose to produce,” said Ijames. “The playwright says, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and we say, ‘OK, we’ll support you in that.'”

The other members of Orbiter3 are Emily Acker, Emma Goidel, Mary Tuomanen, and Douglas Williams. Maura Krause, the only member who is not a playwright, serves as artistic director. A sixth playwright will be recruited later, to keep the collective fresh toward the end of its 3-year life.

“We are very aware of Philadelphia as a changing and growing play scene. We wanted to make something right for Philadelphia right now,” said Krause. “Three years is a right time to inject the scene with more new work by local artists, but not so long that the scene would demand something different.”

The planned termination of the collective will keep all those involved limber, able to change quickly without an institution to maintain. The collective created an advisory board with longtime collaborators, including Ed Sobel, who is directing “Moon Man Walk.”

“Having spent as much time in the salt mines of literary management as I have, what Orbiter3 is trying to do is exciting,” said Sobel. “Playwrights being entrepreneurial, allowing them to see the work in production on a timetable that is more suitable for them. It’s something that is gaining currency, but still pretty new.”

Orbiter3 is loosely based on models pioneered by New York’s 13P and Washington. D.C.’s The Welders. Once Orbiter3 ceases to exist, its members will make all documentation available to other theater artists who might want to pick up the baton.

“Philadelphia in the past three to five years has seen a massive growth. Playwrights have moved here and stayed here,” said Krause. “But local playwrights aren’t getting as many productions as we might hope. We felt the next step in Philadelphia’s evolution as a hub for new plays is producing new work by local playwrights.”

“Moon Man Walk” will run at the Prince Theater until July 19.

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