Gwydion Suilebhan is in the process of writing a play about the origin of Columbia, Md. for its 50th anniversary in 2017. He will be staging a preview reading of the first act of the play on February 21 at Oliver's Carriage House.
Gwydion Suilebhan is in the process of writing a play about the origin of Columbia, Md. for its 50th anniversary in 2017. He will be staging a preview reading of the first act of the play on February 21 at Oliver's Carriage House. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

As Gwydion Suilebhan prepares for a staged reading this Sunday of selected scenes from his play on the origins of Columbia, the Baltimore-born playwright is looking forward to learning from the audience once again.

As part of the Columbia Voices Project, those attending the reading at Oliver's Carriage House will be encouraged to participate in the creative process that will shape the final version of the untitled two-act play by discussing the work-in-progress with the author.

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The finished play will be part of Columbia's 50th birthday celebration in 2017, which is also the 30th anniversary of the event's sponsor, the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

A first public reading of the draft play was held in October, and Suilebhan said that opportunity — seeing his play through the eyes of local residents — convinced him to make a change to the script.

He's expecting to hear again from emotionally invested critics — whether they're longtime residents or newcomers — now that he's added a half-dozen more scenes to the first act.

"Emotions aren't binary; they're nuanced and complex," Suilebhan said. "What rainbow of emotions will I see this time? What canvas will unfold?"

Audience members will be encouraged to offer feedback and tell stories about the early days of Columbia, said Todd Olson, executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

"Some of those stories might even make it into the final version of the play," Olson said.

The earlier draft presented in the fall included a central character in the form of a 68-year-old single woman who moved to the planned community of Columbia in 1967, Suilebhan said.

Part of a pilgrimage by believers in Columbia founder James W. Rouse's vision for a shining city built on racial and socioeconomic harmony, the fictional female was intended to embody what most locals would refer to as a Columbia pioneer.

A reasonable scenario, or so Suilebhan thought at the time.

Not so, he learned from those who experienced those days firsthand. After the performance, members of the audience told him "flat out" there had been no one like that, he said.

Taking them at their word, he made the woman 20 years younger and a recent widow.

The playwright also incorporated two fictional Howard residents who weren't happy about Columbia's pending arrival: one who realizes change is brewing and decides to make the hard choice to sell his property, and a second who is dead set against the planned city and uses code words to mask racist feelings.

While some members of the audience didn't agree with those characterizations, others thought they captured community sentiments well, he said. That conflict during Columbia's early development remains in the play.

"I'm an artist, and I see what I see," said Suilebhan, 47. "It's profoundly amazing that there's this integrated community in a place where some people didn't want that."

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Suilebhan has firsthand experience with Columbia. He lived in Owen Brown for 18 months in 1996 and 1997 before moving to Silver Spring to be closer to his job as director of brand and marketing for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington.

The playwright had his first brush with Rouse's ideas at the July 1980 opening of Harborplace, which was marketed as the centerpiece of downtown Baltimore's revival. He attended the opening ceremony as an 11-year-old with his parents, and has a framed copy of the program.

"That made a huge, huge impact on me," he said.

For Columbia to succeed, Rouse had to do more than convince people it was a good idea. The success of the planned community relied on persuading people to pull up stakes and move to rural Howard County to follow a dream of a city built on love, he said.

"Those 200 or so families who said, 'I'll move to the middle of a cornfield to help make something big' … were looking upward and feeling ambitious; that's not so easy to do nowadays," he said.

Suilebhan began two years ago to dwell on the natural opportunity to explore Columbia's premise and progress that the golden anniversary would provide.

Since being commissioned in August 2014, he has spent countless hours doing research at the Columbia Archives, which are maintained by the Columbia Association.

"The 50th anniversary next year begged for an artistic moment to investigate the arrow that the people who came to Columbia aimed at the sky, and to pose a question, 'Did we hit the target?'

"No one wants to erase the past and start again, but there's tremendous value in asking, 'What did we want, and did we get it?' or 'What can we do to get closer to the target?' "

Suilebhan wants people who care about Columbia to dig deep in assessing their feelings — not only about its origins, but about the planned city today.

"People are protective of their memories [of Columbia's founding vision], but there seems to be a fundamental problem in Columbia today of income inequality," he said. "The question is: Is this a nourishing place for all people?"

Suilebhan said that for Sunday's reading, he intends to seat himself so he can observe the faces in the audience — and will again take notes.

"I already know what's good and bad about the script, but it's hard to face until the audience makes you face it," he said.

However, he is "confident the opening is beautiful."

Olson emphasized the play does not hinge on re-enactments of actual events.

"This is not going to be a docudrama," he said. "The play will consist of archetypal characters that are based on people who met in Columbia."

Suilebhan said a play is at its best when it stimulates an exchange of ideas.

"Art is developed [in collaboration] with an audience that's ready to engage in a community dialogue where we wrestle with differences and reconcile them," he said. "I write plays because I have questions, not answers.

"It's hard to set out to write something hopeful, but my hope is that people will walk out of this play feeling really inspired."

If you go

A staged reading of selected scenes from the work-in-progress play about Columbia will be performed, followed by a discussion, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21, at Oliver's Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia. The event is part of the winter agenda of the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Tickets are $10. Information: 410-715-3044 or columbiafestival.org.

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