Ridgefield theater company launches fellowship to help playwrights find their ‘bliss’

Thrown Stone Theatre Company has launched a playwriting fellowship for the first time. Pictured is inaugural fellow Phanésia Pharel, left, with Thrown Stone’s Co-Artistic Directors Jonathan Winn and Jason Peck.

Thrown Stone Theatre Company has launched a playwriting fellowship for the first time. Pictured is inaugural fellow Phanésia Pharel, left, with Thrown Stone’s Co-Artistic Directors Jonathan Winn and Jason Peck.

Jonathan Winn / Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD — A real-life plot twist has spurred a local theater company to establish its first-ever playwriting fellowship, which will support emerging artists as they craft new stories for the stage.

On Feb. 1, Thrown Stone Theatre Company launched the 068 Magazine Playwriting Fellowship, which is partially underwritten by the eponymous publication. The six-month program will assist up-and-coming playwrights both creatively and financially, and includes a stipend, developmental funds and workshops to refine their new material.

Thrown Stone has selected Brooklyn-based playwright Phanésia Pharel as its inaugural fellow. Last summer, Pharel’s play, “Should We Dance Instead?” premiered on the front lawn of the West Lane Inn as part of the company’s 2021 season, “The Suburbs.”

The fellowship was established, in part, for Pharel, who was a finalist for a similar fellowship at The Lark in New York City. But when the company folded last fall, Pharel was “at a breaking point,” she said, torn between staying in New York or moving back home to Florida.

Thrown Stone’s co-Artistic Director Jonathan Winn saw the plot twist as an opportunity for the company to provide early career support for playwrights like Pharel in the form of a fellowship.

“What we’re seeing in the theater space, especially during COVID, is people giving up and leaving the profession,” Winn said. “It’s strategically very important to plant our flag with the playwright and serve their vision. … It’s our duty, frankly, to carry the flame for these artists.”

Winn said the company delayed its budget approval to find funding support for the $28,500 fellowship. In addition to ongoing fundraising, it is partially being funded by Dee Dee Colabella, owner of 068 Magazine.

“It’s the first time we ever budgeted a deficit, but a lot of people on the board believe very strongly in Phanésia and her voice and what she’s trying to say,” Winn said. “The direction we’ve given to this is ‘follow your bliss’.”

Pharel, 22, graduated from Columbia University last spring, just as she was beginning research for “Should We Dance Instead?”

The play resurrects Ned and Betsey Armstrong — the now-famous operators of Ridgefield’s Underground Railroad station — in the modern world as they reclaim their moral legacy as well as their happiness. The work was revered by broadwayworld.com as a “brilliant” blend of history, spirituality and creativity, according to a release.

Although Pharel has already produced a substantial body of work, creating new content is difficult to do while working two jobs at 40 hours a week.

“You think of other successful playwrights like Shakespeare, but he had a sponsor,” she said. “Oftentimes writers won’t get to work with producers in the development of their pieces, (but) you need to understand how producers think when you create (new) work.”

Colabella believes the fellowship will further enrich Ridgefield’s vibrant arts community, the same one that earned the town a cultural district designation last year. By giving new and emerging artists the resources they need, they can expand their craft and produce “amazing” work, she said.

“This is a chance for somebody to make it,” she added, “and for me that is super important (for) Ridgefield.”

Pharel looks forward to revisiting Ridgefield as she embarks on her fellowship, which ends July 1. She regards the development of “Should We Dance Instead?” as one of the best theatrical experiences of her career, and is excited to connect with the community once again.

“This freedom is going to breed new stories and ideas that I may not have even had,” she said. “When you have that time to read, express and explore, really cool things are gonna come to you.”

For more information about the 068 Magazine Playwriting Fellowship, call 203-442-1714 or email info@thrownstone.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com