With the Volt Festival, the Playwright Karen Hartman Comes Home

“I’m feeling a tremendous sense of visibility,” the playwright Karen Hartman said. “And it’s not when I expected to be visible.”

Visible through a Zoom window, Hartman was speaking from her Brooklyn home the morning after the world premiere of her play “New Golden Age.” Just a few days before, two of her other plays, “The Lucky Star” and “Goldie, Max and Milk,” had celebrated their New York premieres, as part of Volt, a new festival from 59E59 Theaters. (All three productions are being presented simultaneously through June 12.)

Hartman, 51, a playwright with a robust career in regional theater, described being chosen as the inaugural playwright for Volt as “transformative.” The festival, intended to run yearly, is meant to highlight a midcareer artist whose work has seldom been seen locally.

“It was really important that the playwright not be a usual suspect,” said Val Day, the artistic director of 59E59, who dreamed up the festival. “It had to be somebody who was more widely produced in the regions, who had a fairly large canon of work, which deserved to have eyes on it in New York.”

Claire Siebers, left, and Mahira Kakkar in “New Golden Age,” about two sisters fighting for in-person connections in a big tech dystopia.Credit…James Leynse

Hartman fit the bill. Raised in San Diego, she studied literature at Yale and then enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. Shortly after graduation, several theaters produced her play “Gum,” including New York’s WP Theater, then known as Women’s Project. Reviews were mixed, and while she soon became a regular in the regionals, subsequent New York productions proved rare. In one week, Volt, which Hartman described as a “three-night Hanukkah,” changed that.

“It has transformed my own story about what has been going on with my work all these years,” she said.

From left, Nina Hellman, Mike Shapiro, Alexandra Silber, Dale Soules, Skye Alyssa Friedman and Alexa Shae Niziak in “The Lucky Star,” which premiered in 2017 as “The Book of Joseph.”Credit…Carol Rosegg

“The Lucky Star,” which premiered in 2017 as “The Book of Joseph” and is presented here by the Directors Company, animates a trove of real letters written by a Polish Jewish family in the early years of World War II to the one member who escaped to America. “Goldie, Max and Milk,” from 2014 and produced here by MBL Productions, describes the unlikely bond between a queer single mother and an Orthodox Jewish lactation consultant in Brooklyn. “New Golden Age,” produced by Primary Stages and structured like a Greek tragedy, imagines the dark consequences of an extremely online future as two sisters struggle to connect IRL.

Day, who had intended to debut Volt in 2020, felt that these plays resonated even more after the theatrical shutdown. “All of her plays are about people desperately trying to connect with each other and the difficulty in doing that, which we all can relate to,” Day said.

Hartman put it differently, with a touch of knowing irony.

“There is a thread of grief that runs through all these plays,” Hartman said. “It’s not the sexiest sell.”

In a spirited hourlong chat, Hartman discussed her career, her plays, what the festival means to her and what it might mean to other writers. “What this festival is going to do over time is create these questions in the minds of people: Who else is out there? Who should be seen in New York? That’s the power of it,” she said.

Shayna Small, left, and Blair Baker in “Goldie, Max and Milk,” about an unlikely bond between two women.Credit…Carol Rosegg

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you become a playwright?

This displaced New Yorker named Deborah Salzer started the California Young Playwrights Festival, an offshoot of the National Young Playwrights Festival. She started it when I was 14 years old. I acted in the first season. Then I was like, “Oh, I could write a play.” I wrote two plays in high school that were produced in this festival. I got kind of mainline drugged as a playwright very early.

What were the questions that animated you back then?

Honestly, I was a kid who liked acting. And when I went to pick scenes for girls, there just weren’t any. I felt like the roles really sucked. And it felt so small, trying to center myself in the girls that existed, that I actually just started writing for there to be parts to play. My first play was about mothers and daughters. My second play was about a girl who gets obsessed with Sylvia Plath.

Not long after you finished grad school, regional theaters began to stage “Gum.” The Women’s Project staged it, too. What was that like?

I felt very excited and kind of raw. It’s a vulnerable thing to write about anything personal. And that play is about policing the sexuality of girls and women in a violent way. I’d written that play very swiftly, in my last year of graduate school. But it had come out of some real-life people I had encountered when traveling in Egypt, so it was a thrilling level of potential responsibility.

You went on to have a thriving career in regional theater, but you had far fewer productions in New York, though you live in New York.

Most writers don’t get their plays done at all. And almost nothing I’ve written has gone unproduced. I’ve worked with amazing people and been asked onto incredible projects. But in this sense of the cultural conversation, New York is an amplifier. So if I’m a mission-driven person, and my mission is to amplify voices, especially those of girls and women, and I myself am not amplified, then I am not doing my job. Also my work almost always involves getting on a plane and living by myself in artist housing. This festival is the first time that my own community, my friends, my writers’ group, my colleagues can see my work. On a personal level, that matters tremendously.

Why do you think your plays haven’t found a home here?

Generally, the one narrow path from the early-career buzz that I was fortunate to enjoy with “Gum” toward a steady midcareer presence in New York is a rave in The Times. “Gum” did not get that rave. So my road has been longer, and further afield. The sense I got was, “We don’t know where to put you.” The stories I tell, which are stories that I think a lot of people want to see, are off base, but not in a particularly cool way, in a way that’s emotional. I live in emotion. That’s my home.

What is it like having two New York premieres and one world premiere all at once?

The companies are exquisite — the level of artistry, these directors. I’ve described the nitty-gritty of it as like having triplets. They were all in previews at exactly the same time. I called Lucy Thurber, who had this festival of her plays at Rattlestick. She’s the only person I knew who had gone through something like this. She was like, “Trust. And check in with every director every day.”

What do you think unites these plays?

They’re all plays about how our intimate bonds meet our political moments and meet the laws of our time, but in very radically different times and contexts. How do we become the people in the relationships that we have capacity for? And how do our times work with us and against us? I keep coming back to this question of how do we get the deep, deep closeness that we need. Or maybe I’m the only person who needs this.