Playwright Ken Urban Is ‘Homesick’ at the Huntington Theater And Things Are Looking Bright
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, October 12, 2017
When Science and Engineering majors or minors are mentioned alongside Theater and Performance Arts degrees, it’s not a natural association. Ken Urban, the newly appointed Senior Lecturer in Theater Arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (head of the playwriting track), is anxious to change that perception. “MIT’s Theater Arts is right at the cutting edge of theater and technology,” Urban stated recently. “I started college in Chemical Engineering, ended up with a Ph.D. in English Literature, and now I have a career as a playwright.” Playwriting at MIT boasts an illustrious past, having been headed by the very noteworthy and prolific faculty member A.R. Gurney, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright having penned The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and Love Letters, as well as other works produced regionally and on Broadway. Now Urban is ready to make his own mark, and clearly thrilled with anticipation, “The Institute’s new theater building opens this fall, making it a perfect time to develop classes on a dramatic writing. I can’t wait to discover new ways to tell stories with the MIT students and my colleagues.”
There clearly is already an advantage for this year’s theater students, as Urban is going to provide a real-time opportunity for them to see behind the scenes of the upcoming world premiere production of his play, A Guide for the Homesick which is currently playing at Boston’s Huntington Theater Company (October 6 — November 4, 2017). Professionally, as a playwright, Mr. Urban has already been attracting attention with his previous work including Nibbler, a contemporary humorist drama which New York Times called “poignant…a melancholy comedy about growing up and apart.” He has also received widespread attention and acclaim for his tense compelling political drama, Sense of an Ending, which Time Out London called “A superb new play about the Rwandan genocide. So intense that, in between each scene you can hear the audience gulp for air.” With Urban at the helm of MIT’s playwriting track, students enrolled under the Theater Arts program have a new passionate and dynamic mentor and potent voice in contemporary theater, and as enthusiastically boosted by A Guide for the Homesick’s award-winning, Tony-nominated director Colman Domingo, “one of the most exciting writers and generous of human beings.” Unquestionably, the future is bright and holds enormous potential both for Urban’s continued success as a cutting-edge social and political playwright, but also for the emergence of yet un-discovered talent in his classroom at MIT.
Surprisingly or not, as Urban points out in a recent interview, outside of the science and engineering classes at MIT (i.e. humanities), the theater arts program has become the most popular course enrollment at MIT, so there is no shortage of interest as students seek non-science discipline outlets for expression. The challenge for Urban is to get students back to the source of the play they are writing—the storytelling experience, “How to teach storytelling, the figuring out, to a world of kids who have completely grown-up on the screen.” Urban is also thrilled to have in the development pipeline, a Playwright’s Lab for MIT undergraduates that will allow for student’s plays to be performed with “staged readings, professional directors, and professional actors, as part of a big festival created every spring.” The Playwright’s Lab is an example of idea to fruition thanks to Urban’s new appointment, as a result of his creative focus for the theater arts program and the enrichment and real-time learning experience for his students.
In a recent interview, Urban shared his thoughts on the idea and direction for Homesick and the beginnings and background experiences that brought him to playwriting, “as my friends pointed out to me at a young age, I used to write little fiction pieces and they kept saying ‘They’re all dialogue—have you thought about writing a play?’” Fast forwarding to college where Urban was hooked by first experiences with live theater, and by his own admission, his first direct exposure to this art-form, “I didn’t grow-up in a family of theatergoers…and seeing college actors performing ‘plays about ideas’ that took you on an emotional journey, I was fascinated by it.” Off to London as a student abroad in the early 90’s, where he cut his teeth on writing his first play A Sense of Ending (produced by London’s Theater 503 in 2015), Urban reflects on that seminal moment: “Living in London as a student for a semester and seeing plays at the Royal Court (Theatre) and The Bush (Theatre), the excitement of seeing plays in small venues…watching these incredible performances with these amazing actors—that’s what really got me hooked on writing plays.” Now, as a rising star and published playwright with a well-reviewed body of work (including Nibbler, 2017; A Future Perfect, 2015; A Sense of Ending, 2015; The Correspondent 2014; The Awake 2013; The Happy Sad, 2009) and with several plays simultaneously in development and production (The Immortal, The Remains), Urban is enjoying a well-earned momentum.
Now with the premiere of A Guide for the Homesick this season at The Huntington Theatre in Boston, Urban brings to stage his latest political and intense human drama, involving two strangers grappling with redemption, in a passionate and confrontational chance meeting after serving as aide workers in Africa. As exclaimed by Huntington Theatre director Peter Dubois, “I was enraptured by this play and the romantic, highly political way it explores the connection between East Africa and Boston.” Boston’s audience now has an opening-night opportunity to be ringside and up-close with an evening of provocative, emotional “take no prisoners” theater, with expectations to add further dimension and acclaim to Urban’s craft as a storyteller of the human condition. Don’t miss your chance to be on the edge with “a writer wholly unafraid to tackle anything.”
Cover: Ken Urban; photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.