April 14, 2020 | By Julie Garisto
Rich and Mimi Rice
. . .
During a backyard brunch, by tall pine trees and a pond visited by roseate spoonbills and other shorebirds, Rich and Mimi Rice shared how they helped spark literary star power. I learned how Richard, former theater program director at Eckerd College, modeled the school’s WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab after the writers lab at the Sundance Institute.
Spurred on by a mission to elevate and nurture literary talent in theater, the academic program had its first inklings of inspiration when Rich and his wife, an actor, PR director, Actors Equity liaison and teacher, moved to Tampa Bay from New Hampshire in the 1980s. It was a time when words like “crowdpleaser” and “contemporary” couldn’t be seen in the same sentence. “Unlike today, the local theaters rarely did new works,” Mimi recollects.
Thankfully, the theater tides were shifting. In the early ’90s, Eckerd College helped steer the currents by way of the WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab, its name inspired by the view of the Skyway Bridge from Rich’s office.
“Most theater programs were geared toward play production — not toward writers,” Rich says. “Sundance’s David Kranes and I had become fast friends, so he helped me start WordBRIDGE with the same focus on writers he maintained in Utah — intensive, collaborative training that helped shape Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle.”
The Rices showed me program manuals and other memorabilia from WordBRIDGE. I learned how WordBRIDGE challenged writers to pore over their works, often rewriting scripts completely. Actors performed improv to help writers envision an alternate approach. “It was an incredibly amazing experience for actors,” Mimi says.
WordBRIDGE instructors immersed students in peer critiques, input from fellow professionals, performances of their words, feedback from other theater professionals and even inspirational verse from Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke.
Participants benefited from the expertise of visual and musical artists, sound and lighting engineers, architects, Foley masters, singers, psychologists and dramaturges. “Sometimes it was like we worked 20-hour days,” Rich admits.
The Rices’ son, Ross, a multi-instrumentalist who’s played with legends like Peter Frampton and Steve Earle, contributed his talents to productions created from select scripts. Locals contributed their households as rehearsal spaces to cut costs and the city donated funds to the program to help with expenses.
The Rices spoke fondly of Studio@620 Artistic Director Bob Devin Jones, who played his part in WordBRIDGE’s string of successes. Devin Jones’ Uncle Bends, a Home-Cooked Negro Narrative debuted in Tampa Bay during the 2001 session (and will be reprised online on April 30). Pulitzer finalist Lisa D’Amour workshopped her play The Shape of Air during the 1995 session.
Mimi served as “guest resource artist” teaching the Feldenkrais method as part of the program. She said that WordBRIDGE was exhilarating for actors performing different incarnations of a scene or character.
“WordBRIDGE is one of the only programs I know where the theatrical process exists in its ideal form,” wrote dramaturg Steve Oxman in his professional evaluation. He added that the program managed to be “wholly supportive without being sentimental or uncritical.”
Rice and his cohort taught a total of 77 playwrights over the years but couldn’t keep WordBRIDGE going financially at Eckerd College. They relocated to Clemson University in 2006 in collaboration with the Generous Company until its final session in 2012.
“I was in a lucky position of being able to organize WordBRIDGE and make it work despite having a hell of a time getting money to do it,” Rich says.
The Rices’ two-story Pinellas Point home has been the nexus of creation for several projects, including the still ongoing Radio Theatre Project. Mimi organized the series in 2008 with Devin Jones’ help, bringing full-cast readers’ theater productions complete with live sound effects to regular crowds at The Studio@620.
Filled with antiques, vintage furniture and appliances, the Rices’ house also displays items handcrafted by Rich, like the harpsichord in their back parlor. Mimi recently started crafting baskets from the pine needles in their backyard.
Suffice it to say, even in retirement and dealing with health challenges, the Rices are not ones to stay idle.
WordBRIDGE’s influence can be measured by the success of its alumni, some who chose to produce their plays at freeFall and American Stage.
Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright of 2018, is among the sought-after playwrights who studied in the WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab. Gunderson studied physics at Emory before majoring in creative writing and in the past decade, her plays have rapt sold-out audiences — dramatizations that center on largely unknown, real-life women scholars whose work altered the course of history. Her trailblazers include Émilie du Châtelet, Olympe de Gouges and Ada Lovelace. In Silent Sky, produced late last year at American Stage, Gunderson brought enchantment to science with her story about real-life astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), a hearing-impaired astronomer whose discovery of pulsating stars helped map the distance between heavenly bodies.
The award-winning playwright and other budding scribes came to WordBRIDGE from distinguished playwriting programs all over the country such as University of Iowa, University of Texas-Austin, Smith College, University of Utah, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia University and many others.
Alum George Brant’s cabaret-style biographical drama Marie and Rosetta was staged at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg earlier this year, part of a new co-production partnership with Gainesville’s Hippodrome just as the Coronavirus quarantine forced theaters to close for the rest of the season. At the same time, his comedy Into the Breeches! about a team of women putting on Shakespeare’s Henry V during World War II, was onstage at Sarasota’s Asolo Theatre.
Brant, who says WordBRIDGE was his first professional workshop after grad school, wrote the celebrated Grounded, about a woman fighter pilot who gets pregnant and winds up living in the suburbs while flying deadly drone missions.
Brant’s script was translated into 12 languages and has been onstage in 19 different countries, produced by more than 140 theatres, including Tampa Rep in 2017. The Metropolitan Opera even commissioned a new opera with music by Tony-winner Jeanine Tesori.
In 2015, Ann Hathaway appeared in a New York production of the single-actor drama directed by Julie Taymor at the Public Theater. A film of Grounded starring Hathaway is in development. According to Variety, the A-lister was so enthusiastic about the script that she locked up the film rights before signing on for the play.
Pioneering a New Theatrical Standard
In 1994, Eckerd College’s WordBRIDGE became the first academic playwrights laboratory in the state devoted to script development. While there were a few national playwriting programs, they focused on production rather than playwriting.
“Rich had participated in David Kranes’ Sundance playwriting lab for several years and patterned WordBRIDGE after Sundance to focus on collegiate playwrights and many of the WB directors, dramaturges, actors and resource artists came from Sundance,” Mimi says. “It was a unique program in Florida — even by today’s standards.”
When asked about his expertise and inspiration, Rich doesn’t say much or profess his own talent.
“I’m a fairly good organizer, especially with her,” he demurs with a smile and a coy glance in Mimi’s direction.
I was fortunate enough to participate in the WORDBridge play development process as an actor several times — first at Eckerd College, then later at Clemson University.
All of the participants — playwrights, directors, designers, dramaturges, musicians — contributed to the collaborative efforts, but the process was particularly empowering for actors. We were able to contribute through table work, staging and especially through improvisation. We would riff on written scenes, participate in character-building exercises and even create entirely new scenes in our rehearsals.
There are few experiences more rewarding than speaking words in an improv and then seeing them on the printed page the next day. Some of my fondest memories as an actor are those collaborations with other talented, selfless artists in service to the creators of new plays.
Jim Wicker, Actor
I served WordBRIDGE a total of four years, as an actor and Lab Manager.
My first professional acting job, at Greenbrier Valley Theatre under Artistic Director Cathey Sawyer, and my internship at American Stage under Artistic Director Kenneth Noel Mitchell, were both secured through WordBRIDGE.
Rich brought in incredible guest artists – I have powerfully strong memories of many of them because they were instant examples, mentors, and peers.
WordBRIDGE instilled in me my life-long passion for and commitment to new works — to be privy to a playwright’s creation process is a deep honor and fostering new work is a professional responsibility.
I was aware then, and even more so now, of what an extraordinary opportunity Rich gifted to us through WordBRIDGE – that was a real coup for Eckerd College.
Becca McCoy, Actor