Meet new Theater Masters director Joseph Ward
January 18, 2018
Most Aspen theater-goers know Theater Masters only through "Take Ten," the annual February festival that stages eight plays — each 10 minutes in length — by playwriting graduate students from around the country with a cast of local actors.
For the rest of the year, Aspen hasn't generally heard much from the nonprofit.
Joseph Ward, the organization's new artistic director, wants to change that.
"A big priority of mine is communicating back to this community — which is our heart and the soil from which we grow — the successes and the effect that Theater Masters is having, and this community is having, nationally on the playwriting scene," Ward told me during a visit to Aspen last month. "Our audience here doesn't always know that."
Alumni of the program, who got their start with short plays at the Black Box Theatre here in Aspen, have gone on to have work produced in major theaters around the country and to careers at the heights of television and film.
The acclaimed film 2017 "Marjorie Prime," for example, is based on a play by Jordan Harrison developed through Theater Masters: it resulted from Theater Masters' Visionary Playwrights program — a partnership with the Aspen Institute that commissions new plays. The play had runs in Chicago and New York before the Jon Hamm-Geena Davis film adaption that was released last summer.
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"I don't know if the community knows that it's a direct response from the inspiration and magic of this community," Ward said.
Ward describes "Take Ten" as "an on-ramp to the professional community." Selected for the Aspen program, playwrights stage their short work here and then in a springtime New York showcase for an audience of agents, producers, managers, directors, literary managers, officials from professional guilds and New York theater companies. It's a rare launch pad for new voices in theater.
"We want to get them in front of the professional community as quickly as possible," Ward explained.
Now in its 12th year, "Take Ten" will run at the Black Box from Feb. 11-13. The festival is bringing Pulitzer Prize-winning "Proof" author David Auburn to town for the festival, along with student playwrights and freelance directors (Joanie Shultz, an Aspen High School graduate who now runs the Water Tower Theater in Addison, Texas, is among the guest directors). Along with plays by six grad students from around the U.S. this year's "Take Ten" will include short plays by Aspen High School's Joseph Wolfer-Jenkins and Roaring Fork High's Tyler Gruel and a cast of 23 local actors.
The annual "Take Ten" production in Aspen is but one part of the organization's programs for education and professional development for young playwrights.
As Ward takes the reins of the organization, its founder Julia Hansen — the former head of the Drama League of New York who moved to Aspen in 2001 and launched Theatre Masters in 2006 — will remain on board.
Among the quirky aspects of "Take Ten" is that Hansen's downtown Aspen home operates as its de facto headquarters during the festival, when it transforms into a hive of creative activity with directors and writers hashing out the new plays over her kitchen table. That won't change, Ward said, and Hansen will very much remain involved with "Take Ten" and Theater Masters.
A native of northern California, Ward studied theater at Southern Methodist University and went on to a career as a director and producer in New York.
Ward first came to Aspen for "Take Ten" as a freelance director in 2014. He fell in love with the program and with the town immediately.
"The magic of this place — physically, spiritually — and the generosity and wisdom and kindness of this community, I was touched by it," he said.
On that first visit, Hansen encouraged him to go to the Pitkin County Library and listen to its vinyl recording of Thornton Wilder's speech at the Goethe Bicentennial in Aspen in 1949.
"That afternoon alone at the library, listing on headphones," Ward recalled, "I listened to that and said, 'Wow, even then people were recognizing something special and magical here."