Playwrights, to get their work presented to the world, are uniquely dependent on the decisions and commitment of others. The collaboration and effort it takes to move an idea from the page, into the hands of performers, and onto the stage can make it difficult to make live, home-grown theater happen.
This is where Lydia Brubaker comes in.
Lydia and I hung out at Mean Cup, near the campus of Franklin and Marshall College, where she works during the day in her “real” life job. Though, as a genuine advocate of liberal arts education, she thinks it’s not such a bad gig. She spent the early part of her childhood here, on the west side of Lancaster, and later moved to the family homestead, just south of the city in Willow Street.
Her interest in the dramatic arts was never really a question. As she puts it, “I was always putting on shows at home for my family and friends, and my parents really helped to support that and encourage creativity and let me dress up as all kinds of weird stuff. But they also took me to a lot of theater, and so I went to a lot of shows downtown in Lancaster when I was little. At the Fulton, and there was Commotion Theater at that point, Independent Eye was still around, and the Theater of the Seventh Sister. I came to the TSS first when I was in fourth grade. My mom was in a show there. She plays fiddle. She was in a production of Spoon River Anthology. I just could not get enough! I went to every rehearsal that I could possibly go to. And I loved it. I loved the whole process. That was probably one of the earliest experiences of understanding how the whole process works, but there were so many influences.” These formative interests propelled Lydia through many diverse theater experiences in middle school, high school, and college. She was reading and seeing as many plays as she could, while also working on her own projects.
Lydia found her niche in the theater world as a director, although she’s sometimes more of a producer and facilitator (she also acts and writes collaboratively with the local sketch comedy troupe, Happy Time Explosion Show). As early as her senior year of high school she found herself being pushed and drawn toward this role of integrating all the various parts of theater, making the collaborative efforts cohesive. Thoughtfully trying to find the right words to describe her passion for directing, she told me, “I think that it’s about being able to incorporate so many different areas into a production, being able to draw on knowledge from so many different places. I always learn something when I’m working on a play. I love the collaborative nature of it. Everyone involved in the process comes with a different mindset and background, with different skills and knowledge, so being in a room where everyone is able to share that experience can be really stimulating.”
It became clear to me throughout our conversation that Lydia Brubaker makes things happen. She has a passion, seeks out others with a similar passion, and goes with it. One such way she does this is through her involvement with the Lancaster Dramatists’ Platform.
This Platform has been meeting in various forms since around 2005, and is essentially a workshop for playwrights. Lydia currently facilitates the workshop with about ten writers, sometimes more, and originally began her involvement as a co-facilitator with Oscar Lee Brownstein, a former Chair of the Yale Playwriting Department who was living in Lancaster at the time. The group critiques short plays and scenes from full length dramas every two weeks. In addition, on every other first Friday, they present free, staged readings of plays that the group feels are ready to come into contact with an audience. Lydia tells me this is an essential part of the process, that it is this type of dedication, vulnerability, and collaboration that polishes the writing into performance ready theater. She says, “I think any feedback they get from an audience has so much more impact. Just to see how people experience the plays…When you start taking your work from the dining room table to a group of actors who are trying to find the characters in the story, that’s where you can tell what’s working and what’s not working.”
It’s working with writers in this formative stage that Lydia enjoys most. She thrives when she is able to aid in the creative process of another, making art happen. She says that “trying to follow the vision of the playwright” is paramount. Talk to any serious artist or writer, and they can tell you how rare Lydia’s gift is, of being able to “figure out how to help them tell the story they want to tell.” She makes this gift seem as natural as breathing or blinking.
Another way Lydia is making things happen is through her role as Executive Director of The Creative Works of Lancaster. Creative Works is a nonprofit organization that aims to “recognize the creative spirit in each of us, to hold on to our humanity in the postmodern world” and “to fuel and sustain the city’s cultural renaissance.” What’s not to love about this vision?
It all came together in 2008, with several board members all working to perfect a vision for an arts center with creative co-working space and multiple venues for events. However, when the financial crisis happened, potential funding streams dried up; they were forced to get creative. Lydia told me, “We’re a more established organization now. But, you know, there’s a ramp to get there. We started out very, very small.” They did some early, low budget, grassroots events to build a foundation for the work they do now, while refocusing their vision on the performing arts.
Their first event was a mobile art gallery, where volunteers walked around wearing sandwich boards laden with local art. Another early event was a sock puppet parody of the horror film Psycho, which was put on at Lancaster Dispensing Company, naturally, as “beer and nachos and sock puppets go really well together.” Because it was so popular the sock puppets have become something of a tradition. Just this October they put on a reprise of The Silence of the Socks, their parody of The Silence of the Lambs, which originally debuted over the summer. They put on a holiday-ish show, Yule Laugh, which Lydia called “the epitome of what Creative Works is all about. It brought together some established work, so we did a couple plays by published playwrights, but we also featured three new plays by local playwrights, and a bunch of parodied Christmas carols. It was all kind of woven together. We were in the 4th floor studio of the Keppel building, which was an interesting found space for us, and a space that not too many people in the general public had seen before.”
Over time, Lydia and the other members of Creative Works have done increasingly bigger productions. They began to do fully staged readings and full productions of new and established work. Just this May they produced a weekend run of Chet Williamson’s new play called He Comes For His Books at Tellus360. This is a world premier of a locally written, locally produced show we’re talking about here. Lydia told me, “We really hope to do that again moving forward. It was incredibly meaningful, to see that come to fruition.” Chet Williamson is also part of the Lancaster Dramatists’, and his play was selected out of a pool of plays submitted to Creative Works that developed out of the Platform’s workshop. During July of this year, in Crystal Park, they presented 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, part of their summer park series. This series has happened three years running, formerly at Musser Park.
All these efforts come from a genuine love for theater and all the ways it can positively impact a community. For Lydia and Creative Works, that seems to be the payoff, to serve and engage the community at large: “If I was going to describe in a nutshell what Creative Works does—because we dabble in so many projects—we try to keep everything connected to performing arts. When we do an event, we want it to be new to Lancaster, something that hasn’t been done here before. Or, we want it to be brand new work, so that’s where we try to partner with playwrights locally or to create something on our own. Or, we want to bring something to a new audience, for people who might not normally go to theater events. We try to make things as accessible as possible for as many different people as possible.”
Here are some things you’re going to want to check out. On November 15, the Creative Works presents 24 Hour Plays at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster on West Orange Street. The Lancaster Dramatists’ first Friday readings—the next one should be in December. Also, head on over to the Lancaster Creative Works website for more events and information.