Fresh Ink in the quest to uphold local theater

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

In a post-“Cats” franchised theater landscape, every show seems to be a long-running play. To counter this, Fresh Ink Theatre Company is helping new works from local playwrights land on their feet.

Fresh Ink was co-founded in 2011 by Louise Hamill, a lifelong fan of theater. She studied theater at Connecticut College and at the British American Drama Academy, and occasionally works as a stage actor in Boston.

The name “Fresh Ink” refers to the company’s unique focus on plays that have not had a stage production. Playwrights are encouraged to submit new works, and if selected, enter a collaborative workshop process with the Fresh Ink team to receive feedback along drafts.

Some plays being workshopped may be chosen for an Ink Spot Reading, a program that allows plays to be performed in front of a live audience. This allows Fresh Ink to put on an entertaining public show, and for playwrights to receive general audience reactions and feedback.

“Our intention is to play and tear things apart and rebuild,” Hamill said on the Ink Spot series. “There’s no pressure at the end of ‘This has to be done’ or ‘This has to be completed for the rest of the world’—it’s purely a workshop.”

“Pigeon House,” written by New England–based playwright Kara Hadden, went under the Fresh Ink workshop process and was the first play selected for an Ink Spot Reading since COVID-19. The readings were held at Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatres on Feb. 4 and Feb. 5.

The play takes place in a single night, following a book club of middle-aged women—who seem to largely dislike each other—getting progressively drunker while discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”

The play is a loose thematic adaptation of “The Awakening,” which is about a woman who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her docile life under patriarchy. In “Pigeon House,” each member of the book club progresses in their own internal awakening, and as the night goes on, introspective developments explode outwardly.

For Hadden, the Fresh Ink workshops were an awakening from her hiatus writing the play. She had begun drafting in 2019, but after two years put the play down as she felt progress had stagnated.

“I felt like the work I could do on it alone and with my friends—who are also in their early 20s—had halted,” Hadden said. “Once I’ve banged out a first draft, it’s good for me to have an infrastructure or I feel like I’m not getting anywhere.”

Specifically, she benefited from having a live cast for the roles. Hadden is only 22 years old, so writing middle-aged characters was speculative. Having actors’ inputs on their correspondingly-aged roles allowed her to accurately shape the characters based on lived experience.

“It’s so wonderful to have the opportunity to hear the thoughts that people have,” Hadden said. “To have the ability to hear people’s perspectives as the play evolved, to make sure it was going in the direction that I wanted and that everyone else felt good about, and also just making sure things were landing.”

The insights from the workshops helped guide the direction of the play, including its entire framing device. In earlier drafts of the play, Donna—played by Boston-based actor and teacher Karimah Williams—was a member of the book club who primarily acted as comedic relief. After the workshops, Donna was changed into the play’s narrator and de facto protagonist.

The play now opens with Donna awakening on an empty stage, possibly dead. She is unable to remember what happened to her or how she got there, except that she was at her book club meeting the night before, from which she remembers strange occurrences. As she recalls the night’s events, Donna questions if any of the other members may be responsible for her death.

The setup adds suspense to what would otherwise begin as an ostensibly normal—if subtly hostile—book club, and solely centering Donna’s perspective forces the audience to question her narratorial reliability. As a performer, Williams is further allowed to showcase her comedic chops by speaking to the audience.

“A key revelation of this workshop experience was though there’s not a protagonist, there’s sort of a protagonist,” she said. “It’s interesting, because I feel like it has been in the play all along—that framing device is one of the things I’m really trying to carry through, because I think that’s the final arc that needs to be fully realized.”

Fresh Ink gives opportunities to new plays that may otherwise only ever remain a draft. With input from the workshops, a production-ready “Pigeon House” is finally within reach.

“The end is in sight after this workshop in a way that it wasn’t before, which is a relief,” Hadden said. “It’s been a lot of years and now I have a pretty clear idea of the last few things that I want to fix.”

The first step towards finalization was the play’s Ink Spot Reading at the Plaza Theatre, which was performed to an engaged crowd. All of the humor and tension seemed to land—in a post-reading Q-and-A, Hadden said she was initially nervous, but felt good after hearing the audience so engaged.

Although the process of writing is never over, Hadden is excited for “Pigeon House” to leave the nest after three years, and enjoys seeing how directors and actors choose to translate her words.

“For me, it’s having faith that the text will say what I want to say,” she said. “People having their own interpretations of that is awesome.”

Fresh Ink plans to collaborate with more playwrights for Ink Spot readings. These readings help propel local playwrights’ work into a wider world of theater, where they can be experienced by new audiences and reimagined by new directors. Playwrights can submit works to the Fresh Ink website—the submissions window is currently closed for the 2023–24 season, but will reopen next January.

Theater is by nature a collaborative medium, and Fresh Ink scaffolds local playwrights by providing them with resources and perspectives necessary to the process of playwriting.

“The process of writing can be solitary,” Hadden said. “For playwriting, there’s a limit to that, which is what’s so fun about it.”