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INDEPENDENT LENS: Playwright: From Page To Stage

Airs Friday, January 17, 2014 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Robin Williams as the tiger in "Bengal Tiger."

A rare and intimate glimpse into the dynamic process of creating and launching new plays, "Playwright: From Page To Stage" follows two outstanding young playwrights through the writing, development, staging, rehearsal, and public performance of their plays.

Courtesy of Rob Levi

Robin Williams with "Bengal Tiger" writer Rajiv Joseph.

Courtesy of Rob Levi

Production shot from "In the Red and Brown Water."

Courtesy of Rob Levi

Production shot from "The Brothers Size."

Courtesy of Rob Levi

Robin Williams in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo."

Courtesy of Rob Levi

"Bengal Tiger" writer Rajiv Joseph and director Moises Kaufman.

Over the course of three years, the dramatic parallel journeys of Rajiv Joseph and Tarell Alvin McCraney unfold, from the time their work receives development funding until the riveting climax, when one of the productions makes it to Broadway with Robin Williams in a leading role. From acclaimed director Robert Levi, "Playwright: From Page To Stage" premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS, hosted by Stanley Tucci.

When the film begins, McCraney and Joseph are fresh talents bursting onto the scene, both having written probing new plays depicting society in turmoil. Young, black, gay, and from Miami’s inner city, McCraney has an unusual background for mainstream American theater. His "Brother/Sister Plays," a sprawling coming-of-age trilogy set in a fictional black Louisiana community, reflect not only his own life experiences, but also the social and cultural realities of America’s underclass.

Joseph is a quiet but charismatic young Indian-American from Cleveland who traveled to Africa for a three-year stint in the Peace Corps after graduating from college. His "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is a phantasmagorical exploration of war-torn Iraq, seen through multiple sets of dual perspectives — Americans and Iraqis, soldiers and civilians, animals and humans, men and women, the comic and the tragic, the living and the dead.

With extraordinary access at every step, "Playwright: From Page To Stage" brings to life the intense collaborations and emotionally charged process that takes place when teams of writers, directors, actors, and producers pool their talents. Intercutting between the two plays, the film goes backstage to reveal the drama and conflict leading up to their opening nights. Will these productions succeed and move to larger venues? Or will these promising productions close, leaving unrealized dreams behind?

From bare-boned rehearsal halls to regional theaters to Broadway, "Playwright: From Page To Stage" captures the arduous challenges — and ultimate triumph — of these controversial new works and the playwrights who created them.

Those featured in the film include David Dower, Director of Artistic Programs at Emerson College’s ArtsEmerson performance department; Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of New York City’s Public Theater; Robyn Goodman, producer of the Tony Award- winning "Avenue Q" and "In the Heights," among others; playwright Katori Hall ("The Mountaintop"); Moises Kaufman, award-winning director and playwright whose most recent play, "33 Variations," was nominated for five Tony Awards; Steppenwolf Theatre Company member and Broadway director Tina Landau; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage ("Ruined"); award-winning theater director and playwright Robert O’Hara; and actor and comedian Robin Williams.

Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

Coming to Independent Lens - Playwright: From Page to Stage

The lives of two outstanding young playwrights — one, an African American from Miami’s inner city; the other, an Indian American from Cleveland — are brought together inextricably in the process of creating a new language for the stage.

On Being a Playwright: Rajiv Joseph and Tarell McCraney

In this excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary Playwright: From Page to Stage, writers Rajiv Joseph and Tarell McCraney talk about what it means to be a playwright — both the joy and the pain of working in the theater — in this clip that also features scenes from Joseph’s play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams.

Replacing the Lead Character with Robin Williams

In this excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary Playwright: From Page to Stage, we learn more about why they felt they had to switch lead actor in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo when they play moved from Los Angeles to Broadway, and what brought them to cast Robin Williams. Williams himself chimes in about being the “new kid.”

Why Does Theater Still Matter?

In this opening excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary "Playwright: From Page to Stage," these questions are posed: In a world where there are so many other options for entertainment, why do people still choose theater? Why does theater matter? And while supporting new plays is especially important, why does Broadway seem less and less interested in them?