With a new post at MIT and a world premiere play at the Huntington, everything’s coming up Urban
Who would ever have thought that a field trip to an engineering firm would be responsible for giving the American theater one of its most potent and exciting new voices? But that’s kind of how it happened for Ken Urban, who recently began his new post as head of MIT’s playwriting program and is currently in the throes of gearing up for the world premiere of A Guide for the Homesick, his new play that will open at the Huntington Theatre Company on Oct 6. The extraordinary Colman Domingo, a Tony and Olivier Award-nominated actor (currently on Fear the Walking Dead), will direct.
In addition to Guide and MIT, adding to Urban’s big year is the recent publication of his latest play, Nibbler, which premiered off-Broadway last year. In May, the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, will premiere The Remains, a play that explores gay marriage 10 years after it first became legal.
Urban excelled in math and science to the point where it was just assumed—by him, his parents, and his teachers—that he would go on to study similar fields in college. After high school, he entered into the school of engineering at Bucknell University where he started to feel that it wasn’t totally for him. The aforementioned field trip cemented these thoughts for Urban, who calls the engineering firm he visited one of the most depressing things he’s ever seen. And while Urban had always done a lot of writing, his high school English classes left a bad taste in his mouth. It wasn’t until one of his peers suggested a class on 20th-century African-American drama that he knew the theater was where he needed to be. (He would eventually get a PhD in English from Rutgers University.)
There is wonderful symmetry, then, to the fact that Urban recently began a new chapter at MIT, bringing his engineering past and his theater present full circle. “It’s really strange,” said Urban. “Some of my students tell me what their majors are and I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ I can barely do basic arithmetic these days.”
Having a world-premiere play in rehearsals and a major new teaching gig has been an intense experience so far for Urban, especially because of the constant rewriting he has been doing throughout the rehearsal process for Guide, a powerful drama about two strangers, both from Boston and with a ton of baggage, who become friends during one night spent together at a hotel in Amsterdam.
Urban has learned a lot about his play—which was commissioned by Epic Theatre Ensemble in 2011—in the rehearsal room; he estimates that he’s rewritten close to 70 pages at this point, some changes tiny and others fairly major.
Adding to the symmetry of Urban’s journey is that a decade ago he was one of the Huntington’s Playwriting Fellows, a two-year program that provided him with institutional support and—according to Urban, more importantly—a way into the Boston theater scene.
“It was the first time I had ever gotten any recognition from a major regional theater, so it was good to have that support,” said Urban. Nibbler, in fact, was something that he worked on during his time as a Huntington Playwriting Fellow. Guide, too, was given a workshop by the Huntington in 2015.
When Epic Theatre Ensemble commissioned Urban to write a play, they asked him to write about human aid workers, a subject that he knew very little about. He did extensive research, interviewing a number of Doctors Without Borders volunteers as well as people who worked for the UN.
“Just hearing their stories and reading some memoirs of people who worked in the field, I became acutely aware that there’s a ton of training for going out into the fields but there’s very little to prepare these men and women for when they come back home and how much of a struggle that is,” said Urban. “They have these intensive experiences and then they go back to, like, New York, and they just couldn’t readjust.”
This notion of homecoming and the feeling that only people who had gone through a similar experience could understand what they were going through is what triggered the play for Urban. “The first draft of the play came really fast,” he said. “I just knew it was in a hotel room [and that] there are two actors and four characters. I always feel like hotel rooms are a little bit haunted by the people that were there before you.”
Although Urban has been working on Guide in some respect for over five years, it turns out that it feels more right to tell this story now than when the play was initially written. “It does feel like it’s taken on new urgency right at this particular moment, about the idea of trying to help in the world and what do you do when the world has become so complicated and situations are so beyond our comprehension,” he said. “I feel like a lot of us are experiencing grief on a daily basis, so in some ways it feels like the right play to tell right now. I hope audiences go on its journey because it’s a pretty emotional experience.”
“It’s really brave of [Huntington artistic director] Peter [DuBois] and everyone at the Huntington to take a risk on a world premiere and a play that is so challenging,” said Urban, “which I’m sure marketing does not want me to say, but it is, it’s a play that’s going to really ask you to go somewhere and to really grapple with some big questions about America’s role in the world, what it means to be a friend, and how we grieve.”
But it isn’t all serious. For all its intensity and power, there are moments of levity, too. “There are lots of moments of unexpected humor,” Urban said. “And it’s pretty sexy. Sometimes I forget about that. It’s a really intense time to come together and have this emotional experience.”
A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK. 10.6–11.4 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.