In his initial year in the School of the Arts, Jerome Hairston, MFA '01, was working on his first exercise in a class taught by playwright and associate theatre arts professor Eduardo Machado. But he never imagined that "A.M. Sunday," the full-length play that grew out of that workshop, would be accepted into the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays three years later.
Since graduating from Columbia's MFA Theatre program in May, Hairston has had a whirlwind several months. In September he began a playwriting fellowship at the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), one of the country's most acclaimed theatre organizations, and in early December, word came that Hairston's play "A.M. Sunday," had been accepted into the 26th Humana Festival. "A.M. Sunday" is a portrait of a family confronting where they stand in one another's lives. The play begins on a Sunday morning and is the tale of an interracial couple who reach a painful turning point in their relationship and that of their two young sons.
"To make it to the stage in a visible way at a prestigious place means a lot," says Hairston. "It feels wonderful. When you first start out any form of recognition bolsters you."
This will not be Hairston's first trip to the Actors Theatre of Louisville for the Humana Festival. In 1999, while a student at the School of the Arts, Hairston had a 10-minute play, entitled "Forty Minute Finish," accepted at the Festival. That play was done in conjunction with another Columbian, Sherry Wilner, whose one-act play, "Bake-Off," is also accepted for 2002.
Although he has been there before, Hairston expects that the upcoming Festival will have a different feeling. "With a 10-minute play, your relationship to the Festival is limited," he says, explaining that they showed eight 10-minute plays in the same evening. "You are not part of the rehearsal process. There is a difference with a full-length play. It is a more complicated endeavor, and I hope more fulfilling. To have your work demonstrated in that fashion is a more profound experience."
The Humana Festival is known worldwide as one of the most important annual events in American theatre. The 2002 Festival, which runs from March 3 through April 13, will feature the work of more than 25 new and established playwrights. The lineup includes the premieres of six full-length plays, three 10-minute plays, a dramatic anthology written by 15 playwrights and a multi-writer project that explores technology and is inspired by live performance.
Anne Bogart, associate professor of theatre arts, will also make a repeat trip to the Festival. She participated in the 2001 Festival, and had her full-length play, "Score," accepted for 2002. Joining Bogart at the 2001 Festival was Hairston's primary instructor and mentor, Eduardo Machado, who was the star of the Festival with his play, "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" (which played this past fall at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York under the title "Havana is Waiting").
"Rarely do you come upon a student as dedicated to the art of playwriting as Jerome," says Machado. "That this dedication is equaled with enormous talent, you have what every teacher dreams of-a chance to give your ideals and knowledge to a new generation. It was a challenge and pleasure influencing Jerome."
Being accepted into the Festival the year after Machado is particularly meaningful for Hairston. "Having been guided by his teaching, to be there the year after him adds dimension to the accomplishment," says Hairston.
"It has been a long journey," explains Hairston. "You never know what will happen when you write a play. You hope to get a reading, or several readings. It is all part of the development process. Very few plays make it to the stage."
"A.M. Sunday" has had approximately eight readings, the most prestigious of which was at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center during the National Playwriting Conference.
In addition to preparing for the Humana Festival, Hairston has been working at the Manhattan Theatre Club as a Playwriting Fellow for the 2001-2002 season. In conjunction with the fellowship, he will have the opportunity to do a production observation, in which he will see the rehearsals for one of this season's plays, assist the writer, observe and soak in the atmosphere. He is also commissioned to write a play and, upon delivery, to have it read at the MTC. At this time he is still in the "investigation" phase of the work.
The Manhattan Theatre Club is one of a few institutions in the U.S. dedicated solely to producing new plays and musicals, developing and presenting works by both established and emerging playwrights. The MTC produces seven plays throughout the course of the season.
Hairston was selected for a fellowship from a record 160 applications. He is appreciative of the opportunity. "The fellowship gives me a base of operations and a creative home for a year," he says.
He feels his experience at Columbia helped prepare him for these undertakings. "Columbia offers a community of other talented writers trying to hone their craft and invaluable time for exploration," says Hairston, adding that the guidance of mentors may be the most valuable aspect of the program. "Professors help guide you on a journey. [During graduate school you have] the opportunity to get in touch with yourself as a theater artist. A chance to find your artistic vocabulary."