Prized Playwright

Will Arbery ’11 has received critical acclaim for his thought-provoking productions.

By Mary Keister
Date

Update: On May 4, 2020, Will Arbery ’11 was announced as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

Many Kenyon graduates will recall the pivotal class that altered their life’s course. For Will Arbery ’11, that class was “The Play: Playwriting and Dramatic Theory” with James Michael Playwright-in-Residence and Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod ’81 — “a real game-changer,” as he recalled in a recent interview. “I realized pretty quickly in that class that I wanted to keep writing plays after Kenyon.” 

He has stuck with that path in remarkably successful fashion: On March 25, Arbery was announced as one of 10 winners of this year’s Whiting Awards, one of the most prestigious prizes given to emerging writers in recognition of their excellence and their promise. Each winner receives $50,000 to advance their artistic pursuits. (Also among this year’s winners: Jaquira Díaz, a consulting editor for the Kenyon Review and a former Kenyon Review Fellow.) Prior award winners include luminaries such as Tracy K. Smith, August Wilson and Colson Whitehead. 

Arbery’s plays include “Plano,” “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,” “Wheelchair” and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which debuted last year to much critical acclaim. Whiting Award judges praised him for being “intellectually audacious, formally sly, [with] the courage to let [his] characters seize the stage with impassioned arguments about morality and meaning,” and for writing that “moves to the beat of multiple metronomes: the rhythms of thought, the counterpoint of competing logics, the heartbeat of human longing.” 

Arbery, who majored in English and drama at Kenyon, stays busy collaborating on TV, film, drama and dance projects, often with Kenyon alumni and faculty including Assistant Professor of Dance Kora Radella. Fresh off a trip to London for work on the HBO series “Succession,” he spoke to us from his home in Brooklyn about winning the Whiting Award and his life after Kenyon.

How did you learn about your award? 

I was in a hotel room in Chicago. I was there for rehearsals for a play of mine called “Plano.” It was still morning, and I was getting ready to go into rehearsal. I got the call, and I don’t really answer unknown numbers, so I let it go to voicemail. I called back and they told me I had won. It was so surprising, because it’s one of those things where you don’t even know that you’re nominated, so it really comes out of the blue. Eventually I found out who the other winners were. I’m already a fan of some of them, and it was just so cool to be among their ranks. I am blown away by everyone’s talent. 

What’s next for you, after winning this award? 

It really is just going to be business as usual in some senses, just with more financial security. I’m still going to write plays, and I’m also working on films and TV projects. I had a period a few years ago when I was making short films pretty regularly. I want to make another short film, and I think this will provide the security that you need to put your life on pause and commit yourself fully to creating something like that. 

In a New York Times interview last fall, you mentioned how at Kenyon, you began a process of “uncoiling.” Can you share more on that?

I grew up in a very Catholic, conservative environment. For eight years, I went to a tiny Catholic all-boys school run by Hungarian monks. And so I was really surrounded by that Bush-era Republicanism mixed with pretty hardline Catholicism. Then I got to Kenyon. At the beginning of my sophomore year, Obama was elected, and I was meeting people from all around the country who came from very different backgrounds than I did, and even though I was still going to Mass and following these strict principles that I brought with me from that world, it just felt like where I needed to be, like a safe place to get out of my comfort zone and encounter a lot of different views. It was really important for me. 

How have your experiences at Kenyon informed the work you do now?

At Kenyon, I think it’s the community more than anything that gives that feeling of, “We’re all in this together, let’s make something beautiful with the time that we have.” The friendships that I made there, and the laughter, and the imagination — my friends and I, more than anything, we were linked by our imagination, just our willingness to be weird and goofy and just make things together. It’s a fertile place for creative people. I felt a lot of wonder and energy and excitement and curiosity when I was there, and I’ve tried to keep those feelings alive in New York. Actually, when I first moved to New York, that was only made possible by working on “Liberal Arts” with Josh Radnor ’96. I was the extras casting director for that film, and that gave me just enough money to move to New York, which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. 

Three of my best friends in the world are Kenyon alumni, actors who live in Brooklyn: Drew Lewis ’10, Will Dagger ’10 and Rachel Sachnoff ’12. I have projects that I really want to cast each of them in. We run in a lot of the same artistic circles with a number of other Kenyon alumni: Gracie Gardner ’13, Knud Adams ’09, Emma Miller ’15, Julia Greer ’15, Ryan Drake ’14, Natalie Margolin ’14. Neil Pepe ’85, who runs the Atlantic Theater Company, is a Kenyon grad, so it’s multigenerational. There are a lot of Kenyon people out here in the theater world, and it’s awesome to still be making work among them. I wrote a play called “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing” and wrote a role for Rachel. That had a production in Nantucket in 2018, and hopefully it will have a New York production next season and she’ll play that role again. I love writing for my Kenyon pals. 

What drew you to playwriting, and what made you stick with it?

It was just the perfect convergence of all the different parts of me. Growing up in such a big family, balancing all those different voices and perspectives in my head, already having an affinity for writing while also an affinity for performance — it felt like it just clicked. When I first started writing plays in earnest for Wendy MacLeod, it was like an out-of-body experience. I loved the multi-tiered nature of writing for performance. You write it, but then you keep writing it through the act of collaboration, and it’s never really over. It’s a living, breathing organism. By the time I left Kenyon, I knew I really wanted to keep doing that. It wasn’t even a question. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.