The New Harmony Project has been lending support to creatives in the film and theater community for 33 years with their annual conferences. These two-week retreats in New Harmony, Indiana give writers the opportunity to focus on writing, receive support from others in the field, and be inspired by what others are working on. The New Harmony Project’s mission specifically is to select writers and work that “lifts up optimistic, hopeful stories of strength, courage, and the resiliency of the human spirit.” Executive Director David Hudson and his wife Lori Wolter Hudson who is the Creative Director of the project have been working since being hired to expand the programming of the project to include more outreach outside of the conference. In this interview, David explains the mission and purpose of the New Harmony Project as well as how it is growing.
Evelyn Allee: First of all, how did you come to be involved with The New Harmony Project?
David Hudson: So the New Harmony Project has been around for about 33 years now, and throughout that entire time, they’ve had a very strong relationship with the University of Evansville, and each year some of their students join the company as interns or apprentices, office staff, stage managers or literary assistants. I was a student at the university and my first summer I came out as an office intern. I just kept being involved and kept coming back year after year, as an actor and eventually, after all of these years I was hired as the executive director in the fall of 2017. So, I moved to Indianapolis from New York and the rest is history!
EA: You are the co-founder and executive producer of a critically-acclaimed New York City-based theater company, and a lot of your background is in New York. Lots of people would see NYC as a place to end up in your career in the arts. So why did you transition to be part of an organization based in a small town in Indiana?
DH: New York can be a tricky place. I loved living there and really enjoyed the work that I did there and am still involved with the companies that I started there, but at some point, we decided that we wanted to start a family and have a different pace of life than in New York. Plus the New Harmony Project is something that my wife, Lori, who is the artistic director of the organization, and I feel so strongly about. The mission of the organization, the work that is being done and the support that is being offered to artists, and the fact that that’s happening not in New York City or Las Angeles or Chicago which are typically thought of as big theater towns, but its happening here presents a really incredible opportunity for the organization to make a meaningful impact locally, in Indianapolis. I viewed it as a great challenge to really try to build it beyond what it has been. It’s been able to expand from 14 days of programming to over 100 for this year, and we’ve really started to hone in on making a bigger impact. And the fact that we get to do that with a house, a yard and space for our kids to run around and play is great.
EA: How have you seen the New Harmony Project grow since you first got involved with them?
DH: The big thing is that when we first got involved it primarily existed as a 2-week conference in New Harmony Indiana in the spring of each year. That was the extent of the programming. Everything else we did during the rest of the year was really in service of the conference. The feedback that we always heard from every writer we’d served was that they wanted more. They needed more space, time and support. We’ve had past participants back in New Harmony for independent residencies. Our largest expansion of programming has been in Indianapolis where we established the First Look Series. We bring in writers and a cast and creative team where we basically transport the process we’ve had for decades in New Harmony up to Indianapolis with the goal of supporting writers further along in their path to production whether that’s on stage, on screen, etc. We’re coming up on our third workshop, the first of these was in partnership with the Indiana Repertory Theatre and their playwright in residence James Still. The second was in partnership with Phoenix Theater, and we did a workshop of a new play by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, and the First Look we’re workshopping next is a brand new musical called Q2, which is a group of young LGBTQ people as they find their community. We’ve partnered with Trinity Haven to present a benefit concert of selections from Q2, and all of the proceeds will go directly to Trinity Haven as they open their first residence designed for LGBTQ youth in Indiana who are at risk of homelessness.
We view this extension of programming not only as an opportunity to serve writers and artists locally in Indiana but as an opportunity to further ingrain ourselves in the community and provide representation for these issues on stage or on screen. Hopefully this will allow people to see that art and culture can play a social, community-driven role. It’s about creating empathy and supporting these incredible and worthwhile causes.
EA: What makes performance and writing something meant to be performed unique as opposed to other art forms?
DH: I think that performance and writing for performance is really an opportunity to give voice to the voiceless and gives the artists, whether that be a writer, or director, to very clearly create the empathy and representation that they want. Our mission is to support writers whose work emanates optimism, courage, hope and strength, and the resilience of the human spirit. Stories where the glass is half full. That doesn’t mean that they are easy, in fact often times there is a great struggle and strife and hardships happen. Those scripts really allow the audience to engage and empathize in a way that you don’t always get in a museum or listening to music, or other art forms. It’s a unique opportunity to sit in a movie theater with people to have 2.5 hours where you are all sharing an experience. It has the power to really truly change the world. Supporting great storytellers has that power to encourage hope and optimism in a way that other art forms don’t do as directed.
EA: What goes on at the New Harmony Project’s Conferences?
DH:It’s two weeks in the spring, and we have three primary tracks for our writers. We have 12 writers this year, and they range from young, up and coming writers at the beginning of their careers to Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning writers who are much more established. We have writers in full development selected from over 500 applications reviewed by a panel of 60 industry professionals and selected to join us in development and they are given a full creative team with a director, cast of professional and student actors, and they spend the full two weeks developing that one specific script and preparing it for eventual production. Additionally, we have writers in residence, and they are given space and time to work and to hone whatever they are working on. It’s just about the creative freedom to play and become artistically rejuvenated. And this year, we added a slot which we are calling our production in residence, paired with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in New York, and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and they are co-producing a brand new play called “King James”. It is a two person show about Cleveland, and LeBron James, and how his rise and fall correlates to the rise and fall of Cleveland, and the creative team that will be joining us for the second week. It’s a great way for us to provide additional support to producing organizations who are going into production and just need that extra time to develop their scripts. We like to think of ourselves as the research and development phase of production for these scripts.
EA: What is the panel looking for in submissions when you are in the process of selecting writers to participate in your conferences?
DH: The panel is looking for scripts that speak to the mission which is lifting up stories that have that spark of hope at the end, or a path forward. Like I said, that doesn’t mean that they are light plays, a lot of them deal with very heavy subject matter and important issues, but they are viewed through an optimistic lens. The panels have very specific criteria, and they score and rank submissions and we have discussions about them with the board and we narrow it down from 500 applications to 12 writers.
EA: The writing process is different for everyone. Do you find that the format of the conferences is usually helpful to your writers across the board?
DH: I think the nice thing about the conference is that its very flexible. We meet writers wherever they are, and we can customize and tailor things for them. We can figure out what the writer needs and offers support in that area as best we can. Everybody comes in at various points in their life and art and they get to us and everybody slows down a bit and our mission is to allow everybody that space and time. I find that that process is incredibly equal across the board. They leave in a much more relaxed state than they came.
EA: What hopes do you have for this year’s conference?
DH: This year’s conference is one of the largest we have had in the 33 years we’ve been doing it. My hope is that everybody who comes here whether it be part of a company, actors, dramaturgs, directors or student interns, or one of our invited guests joining us for the final weekend, they get an inside glimpse at the process and the work that is going on. That they walk away with an understanding of the value of the work that is being done and support that work however we can. Especially in this day and age and the climate that we live in, hope and optimism, courage, are things that need to be valued. My hope is that people see, recognize, support and tell all their friends about it. We’d like to continue to grow programs to support writers and artists, and audiences, who will benefit from the work that is happening.