Get to Know GRAND HORIZONS Playwright, Bess Wohl
Grand Horizons officially opened on January 23 at The Hayes Theater, where it will play a limited 10-week engagement. Directed by Leigh Silverman, Grand Horizons stars Jane Alexander (Nancy), James Cromwell (Bill), Priscilla Lopez (Carla), Ben McKenzie (Ben), Maulik Pancholy (Tommy), Ashley Park (Jess) and Michael Urie (Brian). The brilliant mind behind this original play belongs to none other than playwright Bess Wohl, who may be making her Broadway debut with Grand Horizons but is far from a stranger of the stage.
Wohl's plays (and one musical!) have been developed and produced Off-Broadway and at theaters around the country, her previous works including Small Mouth Sounds (for which Wohl won the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award), Continuity, Make Believe, Barcelona, Pretty Filthy, American Hero and Touch(ed). As memorable as a Broadway debut is, Wohl's is particularly so as Grand Horizons is the only original new play by a female playwright this Broadway season (My Name is Lucy Barton was adapted by Rona Munro from Elizabeth Strout's novel).
Bess Wohl did not originally set out to be a playwright, however. After seeing Sandy Duncan in the revival of Peter Pan on Broadway when she was a small child, Wohl knew that she wanted to be involved in the world of theater. She went on to study English at Harvard College, and then attended Yale School of Drama to study acting. While she was at Yale, the desire to write sprung up and she began writing plays for her friends to act in, producing them at Yale's student-run space, the Yale Cabaret. One such play was Cats Talk Back, a mock talk back with five "former cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS", which ended up in the New York International Fringe Festival, wining Best Overall Production.
Despite that early success as a writer, Wohl went on to become a working actress, and for a few years writing was put on the backburner. But after coming to terms with the fact that acting was bringing her more nerves than it was joy, she made the switch to full-time writer and full-time creative satisfaction.
"I really like the feeling of creating opportunity for other people..." Wohl shared on Stagecraft with Gordon Cox. "Being able to see people and really lift them and bring people together in a very active way is really fun for me as a writer, challenging people with something that seems impossible."
Wohl has said that she is always juggling different projects, and Grand Horizons is about three and a half years in the making. The initial idea for Grand Horizons came to her as she began to notice a trend within her friend group in which several of her friend's parents were getting divorced late in life. Exploring what it meant to get a divorce in that stage of life piqued her interest and she began to visit retirement communities, speaking to people about love and commitment, and their experiences of starting over close to the end of their life.
It was during a breakfast with Leigh Silverman, who directed Wohl's first play in New York, American Hero, that her ideas for Grand Horizons were further developed. While telling Silverman her thoughts for the play, Silverman shared that her grandparents had started the process of getting divorced the day after their 50th wedding anniversary. And so, the seeds for Grand Horizons were firmly planted and continued to grow from there. A photo of Silverman's grandparents, only visible to the actors, sits on stage as a reminder of where the story of Grand Horizons came from.
Grand Horizons explores not only what it means for a couple to get divorced late in life, (a trend that has risen enough to acquire the name 'Grey Divorce') but how such a such a shift in the family inevitably effects everyone in it.
"It's really about what happens when you step out of the expected role that your family has prescribed for you, and how that shakes the foundation of everybody's role in the family." Wohl shared on WAMC's The Roundtable.
No matter what point of life one is at, Grand Horizons offers something that will speak to every audience member, delving into relationships with both oneself and others, and what it means to face change.
Wohl went on to share on WAMC's The Roundtable, "What was most interesting was seeing how people related to these characters and seeing the different points of entry for people, that older people would come in relating to the 80 year old couple, younger people would relate to the children very strongly. Also, there's a lot of gender questions in the play about how women see things and men see things typically, and so it was interesting to start those conversations with people and understand that better. This play is kind of a Rorschach test. People bring their own feelings about marriage, love, commitment, family, all of that, to this play, and they really project a lot onto it, and that's really been an interesting conversation to start to have."
Bess Wohl is a writer who isn't afraid to take risks and doesn't shy away from a challenge. With such an exciting Broadway debut it will be thrilling to see where her words will take us next.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos