With ‘Babel,’ a Philly playwright to get six world premieres

Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger (provided)

Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger (provided)

The playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger sat four rows up from the stage of Theatre Exile in South Philadelphia on a mid-February night, at a preview of “Babel,” her latest play. It was the first of five performances before the production officially opened Feb. 19 at the professional stage company’s spiffy new theater, rebuilt at the corner of 13th and Reed streets from an old cramped-but-cozy one.

Previews like the one Goldfinger was watching are essentially uninterrupted dress rehearsals, open to audiences who buy less expensive tickets than those on sale beginning with opening night. Seeing previews can be risky because the production — and also the play, if it’s a world premiere like “Babel” — can change and improve nightly until it actually opens.

But to the cast, crew and playwright, a preview is like delivering a baby: What had been a growing concept is now a living one. What works in front of an audience will probably be obvious. What doesn’t work might be painfully obvious.

Goldfinger was carefully processing what she was seeing. Just before that first preview, she had rearranged “Babel” in a major way, moving four entire scenes to different places in the script. When I asked her the next day about the shifts, she said, “Oh, you know about that. Did it work?”

(I didn’t know how “Babel” was working before I saw the first preview, so I couldn’t answer. But the drama, about a society that tolerates only perfect pregnancies tested in utero, seemed to have a smooth and frightening arc to me.)

With her own notes, and more from “Babel” director and Theatre Exile leader Deborah Block, and possibly comments from the cast and crew, Goldfinger would have several preview performances to consider changes before opening night, when her script would be  “frozen.” In the theater, that means exactly what it sounds like outside.

For Goldfinger, who lives in Philadelphia and whose work is garnished with awards and other honors that make her a welcome talent at theater companies across the country, there’s a bonus with “Babel.” It will have six world premieres, not one — an idea illogical on its face. But in 1998, a group of theater artists founded something called the National New Play Network — Philadelphia’s Seth Rozin, leader of InterAct Theatre, was one of them – to give playwrights a chance to polish new work in a way never done before on such a broad scale.

The network, now a consortium of more than 100 professional theaters, helps commission and incubate new work. The scripts, still much in progress, go to member theaters as a possible choice for their seasons. Generally, at least three different theater companies choose to produce their own versions of a single work in the course of a year. Each gets to claim a “rolling world premiere” — a refreshed work each time the play jumps from one production to another.

Between productions, the playwright gets to smooth out the characters and refine the dialogue, perhaps even the plot. The National New Play Network has taken a Goldfinger play through this process before. In the case of “Babel,” Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre first commissioned Goldfinger for $10,000 to write it for a staged reading.

Then it went on to its first full production last month at Unicorn Theater in Kansas City, Mo. Theatre Exile’s is its second production, and after that, productions will be mounted at a theater in Utah, at the Contemporary Theater Festival in West Virginia, and at Passage Theater in Trenton. By the time “Babel” gets to its sixth theater, not yet announced, it will be like an old stage trouper. But it could be a very different play.

The cast of “Babel” at Theatre Exile. From left: Anita Holland, Amanda Schoonover, Frank Nardi Jr. and Bi Jean Ngo. (Photo courtesy Paola Nogueras)

What “Babel” is about

“The story,” Goldfinger said, “is about two couples in love — they’re friends and they all want to do the best thing by their children and their communities. With their underlying values, they come up with different ways to do that. This play is exciting to me because there’s no one clear-cut bad guy. But their realities of what they have to do to survive in society punch them in the face.”

The real bad guy here is, in fact, the society Goldfinger creates for her characters. It’s based on eugenics, the process of scientifically controlling breeding so that perfection — someone’s idea of it, anyway — is the goal. The Nazis wanted eugenics to create a Aryan “master race,” as Hitler called it. Since then, advances in science have enlarged the possibility of controlled genetics — and of a scary future.

This possibility struck Goldfinger seven years ago, when she was pregnant with twins and a test indicated one of them might have a health issue. The twins, a boy and a girl, are fine, but the notion of in-utero testing and its dark side stuck with Goldfinger. What resulted is “Babel.”

When I spoke with Goldfinger by telephone on Valentine’s Day, she was cutting out red hearts from construction paper for a dinner she’d cook that night with a red theme, an idea she said delighted her children, who were at school. Her stepdaughter is a graphic design major graduating from Temple University this year, and her husband, Lawrence, is a research biologist who runs a lab at Jefferson University.

Goldfinger, 41, grew up in Florida, and several of her plays are set in the deep rural South. After getting a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Southern California, she worked in Hollywood for a few years, in television and film at Warner Brothers, but hankered for the stage.

“It could just be my personality,” she said. ”I want to write what I want to write. And in TV and film, the writers are told very much what to write.”

She began working in the literary office of a new play festival, reading scripts all day long. She met her husband-to-be in San Diego and moved there to be with him. Goldfinger got a job after hearing about an opening at the vaunted La Jolla Playhouse. “Me with my MFA,” she said with a laugh, “walked into La Jolla and said, ‘I want to be your new house manager.’”

She managed the house during shows at night, wrote and watched rehearsals during the day.” I just knew that theater was where I belonged, and that to get there, I was going to have to start at the bottom.”

She rose the ladder to become a literary associate, helping to choose scripts for production and writing playwrights with tips on what they could improve.

Her husband got a job in Philadelphia, and Goldfinger found herself in a place where she knew no one professionally. “I just started talking to everybody and taking people out for coffee,” she said, especially the city’s playwrights. Sara Garonzik, the leader of Philadelphia Theatre Company at the time, eventually hired Goldfinger as literary manager.

In  2011, she turned a one-act into a full-length play she called “The Terrible Girls,” a tale with Southern Gothic elements about three women who run a tavern while the owner’s away on business. It’s alternately funny and dark, with some of Goldfinger’s easy mix of organic, everyday dialogue and more literary discourse. Azuka Theatre, a Center City professional company that prides itself on giving voice to stories about underdogs and outcasts, was looking for new plays, and staged Goldfinger’s. It was the first professional production she didn’t have to self-produce. Azuka went on to produce more of her work, and so did other stage companies around the country.

Goldfinger teaches in the graduate theater program at Temple University and is reaching out to playwrights with Page By Page, a monthly internet magazine written by theater artists for theater artists. She is, in effect, the editor, collecting work, contributing pieces about playwriting, and distributing the content. (Through the magazine, she also arranges retreats.)

“It’s a passion project,” Goldfinger said. She gives free subscriptions to promising writers and has about 200 subscribers who pay on a sliding scale. The subscriptions, she said, average $8 a month.

Like many theater artists, Goldfinger sees herself as a teacher as much as a playwright. Her own trajectory has taken her from rural Florida to the forefront of regional theaters, and at one point, Britain’s National Theatre.

“As someone who grew up with almost no access to theater, I know there are amazing stories being written all over the country. Especially in rural areas, students get out of college and there’s no infrastructure to continue their learning.”

Her internet magazine will provide some of that infrastructure, she hopes, just as the National New Play Network has given expanded infrastructure to Goldfinger. “Babel” is the latest result.

“Babel” runs through March 8 at Theatre Exile, 13th Street just north of Reed Street. 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org

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