Becoming a playwright is not the easiest path. But when a year-long opportunity comes along to develop a script, with input from peers and theater mavens, that path gets a bit smoother. For Oak Parker Dianne Nora, becoming part of Goodman Theatre’s Playwrights Unit for 2018-2019 is a chance to hone her writing, complete valuable research, and, ultimately, workshop her completed play.
Nora said she was “delighted and a little terrified” when her application was accepted. She now meets every other week with three other Chicago-area playwrights in the program along with Goodman’s literary team.
She spends her time on “A Work in Progress about the Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” (working title), her play about a character staging a production of RBG’s life, with comic elements and nine women representing the justices.
“In the past few years, I’ve been really interested in stories that focus on women and girls,” she said. “I’m definitely interested in politics. I like to say it’s at the intersection of the personal and the political — not just politicians sitting in a room debating things, but how that affects people’s actual lives.”
Nora’s actual life started in Oak Park. She attended Ascension and attended acting classes at Village Players from age 7 to 14. When she went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, Nora acted in plays and musicals and sang in choir, graduating in 2006.
Deciding auditions were not her thing, but wanting to be involved in theater, she majored in Dramatic Literature at New York University, which prepared her for work as a dramaturg, something she currently does along with playwriting.
After studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland, and taking a playwriting class, she “fell in love” with Irish theater. She pursued graduate-level education, getting an MPhil degree from Trinity College, Dublin, in Theater and Performance with a playwriting concentration. Nora then earned her Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from Columbia University. For her thesis play, she worked with Tracy Letts in New York and continued to partner with him back in Chicago at Steppenwolf Theater on three plays he penned.
“It’s almost like apprenticeship work, where you’re watching someone who’s more masterful at something. … How do they interact with actors, how do they give notes, what is their relationship with the director?” Nora said. “It was really helpful to see with new play development that you don’t just finish the script, hand it over and you’re gone.”
While Nora has written several plays, only a couple have been staged to date. But that is changing. In August, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Scotland, her play Monica: This Play is Not about Monica Lewinsky will be put on by Via Brooklyn. Contrary to the title, the work is a dark comedy with “scenes of Monica Lewinsky with different imagined lovers” and “asks what the cost of intimacy is.”
Nora said comedy and satire runs through much of her work. In fact, she is also a comedy writer, collaborating with the founding editor of The Onion, Scott Dikkers, who was her teacher at a satire writing class at Second City. She contributed to Welcome to the Universe Which is Mine by (Not) Elon Musk and is currently working with Dikkers on a parody of the Bible, which she admits is not for every audience.
The Playwrights Unit writers had a work-in-progress reading of their scripts in February in front of a small, invitation-only audience, including Goodman and other theater-community guests who gave feedback on how the plays might develop further.
As part of the Playwrights Unit, Nora’s work is commissioned and the financial support she receives is proving useful as she completes research and continues to write.
“I quickly realized you can’t watch video of the Supreme Court,” she said. “I asked for some help, so last week I was in DC watching oral arguments at the Supreme Court. … I got to visit the Library of Congress where some of [Ginsburg’s] papers are. When I’m working on my own, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that.”
A concert reading of all four playwrights’ completed works from the Goodman’s Playwrights Unit will take place this July 5-8.