State Council on the Arts honors Maplewoodian’s 1st play

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The New Jersey State Council on the Arts recognized 18 New Jersey artists with Individual Artists Fellowships, among them local playwright Rachel Diken. The Maplewood resident won a $10,000 grant for her one-act play “Possible,” which will allow her to spend more time writing for theater and to grow as an artist.

Diken, who has lived in Maplewood for a little more than two years, applied for the grant after a friend suggested it to her.

“There’s not a job you can apply for that you get paid to write plays,” she said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Feb. 15. “So you always have to be aware of the grants and things like that.”

“Possible” is a two-person play that Diken described as more of a dialogue between the characters than a narrative.

“It happens after this big extinction, and we don’t know much about what happened,” she said. “One of the characters is in mourning and the other is talking through that, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. It does end on a hopeful note.”

Diken is still relatively new to writing plays; “Possible,” her submission for the grant, was the first she had ever put on paper. She began writing two years ago, and last summer wrote a full-length play.

Diken is the director of operations for the Naked Angels theater company in New York City, where theater directors, actors, producers, writers and designers work together to create productions. The company has held a reading of Diken’s work, but there hasn’t been a full production of her play yet.

“This is the first play I ever wrote and it hasn’t been on stage yet, which is thrilling for me,” Diken said. “It’s pretty nerve-racking, but when you actually hear the language sink in, it’s a great moment.”

When an idea comes to her, Diken said she doesn’t always have a full outline for a story.

“I never leave home without something to write,” she joked. “I won’t always have a full picture, but when I sit down and give it space and time, I just let it come out. Then I workshop it and edit myself, before I let a few friends I trust read it. Sometimes I let it live in the world for a few months and then come back to it with fresh eyes, too.”

Diken plans to use her grant to keep writing and to travel.

“Travel is really important to me,” she said. “My goal is to eventually live bicoastally, here and in Los Angeles. So some of it will go toward cultivating that.”

Though “Possible” is Diken’s first play, the panel of judges at the NJSCA didn’t know that. According to Don Ehman, the council’s director of artist services, the artists’ names are not disclosed until the winners have been decided.

“The panelists read everything and score the work between one and five,” Ehman said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Feb. 16. “The ones with the highest scores move on and then we average the scores to decide who wins (funding).”

Ehman said the sole criteria the panel looks for in submissions is artistic excellence. They come together for a full day to discuss the artists. Playwriting is not the only discipline awarded; this year, photographers and crafters were honored as well. There are seven types of artist’s grants awarded on a rotating basis.

“Primarily it’s to help them buy more time to practice their craft,” Ehman said. “They can buy supplies, go to retreats or workshops. The fact that they were selected represents that they were doing the best work in the state.”

In addition to the grant, the winning artists have an exhibition of their work and were honored at a ceremony. Other artists participate in a gallery showcase.

“This is the first time I’ve gotten something like this and I’m really grateful,” Diken said, mentioning the ceremony. “Everyone was so genuinely interested and passionate about art and I was touched by their sincerity.”