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Jennifer Barclay

Jennifer Barclay, assistant professor of playwriting and performance in the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS), has received a Tier 1 Faculty Incentive Program Award from the UMD Division of Research. Tier 1 grants are awarded twice a year to faculty pursuing new directions in their research. Her project, “Essence Work: A New Approach for New Plays,” will challenge the traditionally solitary work of playwriting by employing a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to new play development. To pioneer this new method, Barclay will work with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and renowned director Shana Cooper to develop a new play about the human trafficking crisis in the United States.

Although theater is a collaborative art form, playwrights typically write in solitude. “Essence Work” provides a method for challenging directors, actors and designers to develop improvised, nonverbal theatrical pieces that eventually inform everything from scripting and staging to visual design and character. Shana Cooper developed the method at the Yale School of Drama, and Barclay will work closely with her and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to apply the methodology to the development her new play.

Collaborative work is already an important part of Barclay’s research and writing practice. For example, to create “Ripe Frenzy,” a play which examines the role of media coverage in mass shootings in the United States, she partnered with her colleague Jared Mezzocchi, an assistant professor of theatre design and production in TDPS, to create a story that is driven equally by text and multimedia. This type of pre-production collaboration between a designer and a playwright is unusual and typically does not occur until the play is in production.

It is even more unusual for the playwright, actors, designers and producer to work together on the development of a new play, but the Tier 1 funding will make that possible.

“Empowering all the actors, collaborators and designers so that they are connected to the work is very important to me,” Barclay said. “But playwrights, theatre companies and directors rarely have the time or the funding to support this kind of collaborative process.”

Barclay, who also won the 2016 Smith Prize for Political Theatre, is drawn to subjects that address contemporary social and political issues, especially those that disproportionately affect women. She notes that human trafficking is an issue that affects both U.S. citizens and immigrants, and that many people interact with human trafficking victims without even realizing it.

To research the play, Barclay partnered with the Polaris Project, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in DC and the UMD Safe Center for Human Trafficking Survivors to spend time listening to and connecting with survivors. Barclay says that this extensive, first-person research helps her to create meaningful, intimate stories that inspire empathetic dialogue and social change.

“To have this support from the university for arts project that will create social and political awareness while raising potentially uncomfortable positions speaks to UMD’s commitment to fearless and multidisciplinary initiatives,” she says.