FACT-BASED ‘SHELTERED,’ 2018’s WINNER OF THE ALLIANCE/KENDEDA COMPETITION, UNFOLDS AS WWII THREATENS EUROPE AND AN AMERICAN COUPLE SCHEMES TO RESCUE JEWISH CHILDREN.
The Alliance Theatre world premiere of “Sheltered” runs March 1-25 at Actor’s Express in West Midtown, 887 West Marietta St. NW. Details, tickets HERE or at 404.733.5000.
ALIX SOBLER NEVER WANTED to be seen as a political playwright. The New York writer and occasional performer is no fan of telling people what to think.
“I think the most effective way to ask larger, political questions is through character-driven stories,” she says. “I like showing how larger political issues and decisions affect real people’s lives … absorbing the macro into the micro, so to speak.”
Sobler, with her script Sheltered, is the latest winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. The 15-year-old program, the only one of its kind in the nation, helps student playwrights make the transition to professional theater and gives each year’s winner a fully staged world premiere.
The Alliance’s annual KENDEDA WEEK, featuring staged readings of plays from four runners-up, is a highlight of the Atlanta theater season. The readings are free. SCHEDULE HERE. Space limited. Reserve seats HERE.
Sobler and director Kimberly Senior took a break from workshopping Sheltered at Washington’s Kennedy Center to talk about it.
“The current political climate in our country,” Sobler says, “sort of clicks into line with pre-WWII.” Sheltered, a 90-minute drama based on a true story, follows a Philadelphia couple’s quest to save children from the Nazis.
Perhaps the most important question it raises is this: Is separating children from loving homes, even in wartime, the best option?
That question first struck Sobler when she was reading about Syrian refugees. She then discovered the story of Eleanor and Gil Kraus, who, in 1939, navigated red tape and criticism at home to rescue 50 children, ages 4 to 14, from Vienna. They brought the children to the United States and placed them with foster families until their parents could immigrate. Many were never reunited with relatives. “Of course, I took some artistic license,” Sobler says.
That sort of license seems to serve her well. In The Secret Annex (2014), for example, Anne Frank survives World War II and moves to New York to write her memoir, but the only publisher interested wants incessant rewrites. The Great Divide, which digs into a 1911 tragedy among workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the lower east side of Manhattan, won the 2015 Canadian Playwriting Competition.
Sobler and Senior, a Chicago-based director, are of like minds.
“This is the work I want to be doing,” Senior says. “I feel called to do this, the political work. Something that is calling ordinary citizens to act in extraordinary times.”
Sheltered took Sobler most of two years to write and, she says with a chuckle, “I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
The two hadn’t met before partnering on this project, but now consider themselves inseparable, a sister act birthed by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth, who put them together.
“We call it Jewish geography,” Senior says, half-joking and referring to their common backgrounds and lifestyles.
“We know how to talk to each other,” Sobler says. “We’re on the same page with what the play is and what it should be.”
The two share something else, as well: a belief in the power of being female.
“Women have been left off our history books,” Sobler says, “because we didn’t start wars or, with some exceptions, run governments.
“I never identified my work as political because it always felt like I was writing about such personal things,” she says, “about people and situations that were pulled right from my life.”
As she’s written more, her subject matter and understanding of political theater have expanded. With few exceptions, she says, her work reflects the political climate of a certain time.
It seems appropriate then, that she learned of her Kendeda win in January 2017 while traveling by bus to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Sheltered bested 61 other entries from playwrights at the best graduate schools in the country — Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, the New School for Drama, NYU Tisch and Yale, among others.
She joins a list of Kendeda winners that includes some heavyweight names — Bekah Brunstetter (who produces and writes TV’s “This Is Us”); Jiréh Breon Holder (whose 2017 Too Heavy for Your Pocket was subsequently staged off-Broadway; Mike Lew (the first to make the Alliance mainstage — two years after his Kendeda win — with 2015’s Tiger Style!); and Tarell Alvin McCraney (an Academy Award winner for Moonlight and now playwriting chair at the Yale School of Drama).
“It felt very apropos to find out that this political play I had written was finding an audience on the same day I was out there expressing my political views,” Sobler says. “It was a moment when I felt my voice mattered in more ways than one. I also knew the unique circumstances made it a moment I would never forget.”
Her reaction: “That night I went home and kissed my husband.”