‘A Writer’s Paradise’: At Cape May Symposium, Novice Playwrights Learn from Legends

Playwrights flock to Cape May each spring for this five-day master class.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley at last year's National Playwrights Symposium in Cape May
Playwright John Patrick Shanley mentored the National Playwrights Symposium in Cape May last year. Photo: Wendy Collins

Every spring, playwrights flock to Cape May for the National Playwrights Symposium. This month, about 20 emerging and mid-career playwrights will learn from theater and screen legends during a five-day master class at Cape May Stage (May 12-17).

“This symposium is the artistic heart of Cape May—it’s a writer’s paradise,” says Pulitzer, Tony and Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley, who mentored the class last year.

It’s an intense five days filled with speaker presentations, student readings and master playwright critiques. Nights are spent rewriting and talking shop with classmates and advisors.

On the last night (May 17 this year), the public is invited to attend readings by professional actors of the attendees’s short plays and give feedback.

The list of past headliners reads like a who’s who of iconic playwrights and screenwriters: Tony, Obie and Olivier Award winner John Guare; Tony and Emmy honoree and original Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel; and Obie Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist Eisa Davis.

A writing exercise at the symposium sparked one playwright’s career. In 2022, John Spellos was tasked by Marsha Norman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to write about a dark chapter in his life; he reluctantly dashed off a few pages. Norman encouraged him to finish it and, upon returning home, Spellos completed the play. Rosie Is Red, and Everybody Is Blue was presented as a reading at Cape May Stage last year and may become a full production.

Another program veteran, Kate Hamill, who attended the workshop in 2015, is one of the most produced playwrights in the United States today. Cape May Stage is presenting her play Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson—Apt. 2B this summer.

The symposium grew out of a vision shared by Roy Steinberg, producing artistic director at Cape May Stage, and Shawn Fisher, an award-winning playwright and set designer. “We hoped our next generation of artists would find their own voices,” says Steinberg.

Clearly, they have.

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