Hidden River Arts 20th Anniversary Celebration and First-Ever Fundraiser!

Please join us at our biggest-ever celebration at Hidden River Arts’ 20th anniversary. Tickets are available here.

Twenty years ago, I used a portion of a writing award I won for my own fiction and established an arts organization dedicated helping other writers. The mission, from the very first day, is summed up in our motto: “Dedicated to Serving the Unserved Artist”. We’re committed to finding, supporting and celebrating those outsider artists because there are so many creative people deserving of more recognition and help.

I named the organization Hidden River, after the Schuylkill River, which flows through the Philadelphia region of Pennsylvania, which is my home. “Schuylkill” is Dutch for “Hidden River”. It seemed to perfectly describe our mission, which is to search out and support the hidden creative talent all around us – to celebrate that living, vital, powerful creative force that is the river of talent flowing among us. To support the artists.

This year, Hidden River Arts is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over those years, we’ve grown steadily. We’ve expanded to become an inter-disciplinary arts organization. What began with one yearly fiction competition, grew to include a yearly full-length playwrighting competition, residency programs, educational outreach, live arts events, gallery events, performances, a first-book competition for women over the age of 40, even production activities. We’ve run a robust internship program, and have watched many of our wonderful interns go on to jobs in publishing, theatre, performance. They’ve established their own literary journals, run their own arts companies, written their own books, taught their own workshops. We now have an independent small press, with several imprints, so that we can offer the possibility of publication to deserving writers struggling for recognition and support. There are other goals and hopes for even more growth as Hidden River moves into its next phase.

In marveling at just how long we’ve been here and at how much we’ve grown, it occurred to me: In all these twenty years, we’ve never once held a fundraiser. Hard to believe, right?

So this year, as we acknowledge this happy anniversary, we’ll be reaching out to the arts community to whom we have been so dedicated, and scheduling some celebrations as well as some fundraisers. We’ll have a local fundraiser in Philadelphia and an online crowd-sourcing fundraiser. We’ve decided to do this because, what also occurred to me is that, with just a bit of help, we could grow our programs bigger and faster, we could bring our workshops, classes and performances to more people, reduce our already-low fees even more. We could travel our programs, build a greater platform for online workshops and classes. The growth that took twenty years could now continue; in fact, we could expand in less time and reach out to support more people. A yearly words and music festival is one of our dreams. A re-established and expanded residency program. More theatrical and film production. More publishing. And always, the core of our mission remains to support the unserved artists among us whose talent and vision make the world a much better place. They are the primordial wellspring from which all of this flows.

So, those who will be in Philadelphia this summer, please join us for our 20th Anniversary celebration and first-ever fundraiser on Sunday, June 7 at 7 p.m. or 9 p.m. It’s going to be a wonderful event. We are gathering at L’Etage, the nightclub above Le Beau Monde, at 624 S. 6th Street, Philadelphia. The evening will include a cabaret performance with (in alphabetical order) Jean Brooks, Leon Carelli, Debra Leigh Scott and Denise Shubin. We’ll also be doing some readings of our award-winners’ work, and perhaps even a bit of reading from some of our many beloved interns! But most of all, it will be a time to gather together with people who love art, music, language and creativity to meet, mingle and celebrate.

To read more about Hidden River programs, please visit our website. To buy tickets for our 20th anniversary event, please click here.


Meet Lee Edward Colston, II, winner of the 2013 Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

We are proud to announce Lee Edward Colston, II, as winner of the most recent Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award for his play, Solitary.

Lee is a prison guard turned actor, playwright, director, acting teacher and author. After leaving his job at the Department of Corrections, Lee trained classically as an actor, receiving a BFA from the Brind School of Theatre at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Acting at The Juilliard School, as a member of Group 45. In addition to his talents as a playwright, Lee has appeared in over twenty-five productions, including Avenue X (7 Barrymore nominations), Cradle Will Rock (Irene Ryan nomination), Romeo & Juliet, SANKOFA, Once on This Island, and Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love. He also starred as Harpo in the Broadway National Tour of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and as Othello for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.

Lee is also a second-generation Meisner trained actor and is a founding director of The Philadelphia Meisner Technique Intensive where he teaches acting technique. He has taught over 170 actors in the Philly, DC, & New York region.

In 2014 The Juilliard School named Lee as a recipient of the Jonathon Madrigano Entrepreneurial Grant to provide funding to PMTI to help offer more access to theater arts training in the Philly region.

As a playwright, Colston’s play Solitary was a 2009 winner of the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop PlayShop festival, where it received intensive workshop attention: work with a dramaturg, director and actors. His newest play Roost won the 2010 Life Media Award for BEST NEW PLAY in the Philadelphia Urban Theatre Festival. In 2012, Roost was later revived for further development by Ritual Theater Company for a reading starring veteren actor Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Cheryl Freeman (Disney’s Hercules, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Dead Presidents) at the Ars Nova Theater & PS 122 in New York City.

His book of poetry Phenomenal Brotha: Blood, Sweat, & Ink was released in 2005.

Our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott, caught up with Lee on his summer break from Juilliard, here in Philadelphia where he is running his summer sessions of the Meisner Intensive, to talk a little bit about this play, and about his work.

DLS: “Solitary” was your first play? Can you give us a bit of its backstory?

Solitary was born during my time working in the prison system. I had the privilege to come in contact with a lot of different kinds of people. Those experiences helped to shape my artistic sensibilities tremendously. I wanted to tell the stories of the men and women I met. I not only wanted to tell the stories of the incarcerated men at the prison but also the people in my neighborhood of North Philly. I wanted to tell my story.

DLS: Before heading to college, you worked for a time as a prison guard in Philadelphia. How did that experience color your feelings about Jamal and Lucius*, two of your characters in “Solitary”?

LEC: I felt like working in that environment helped me to find where my voice lived and what stories I was interested in. Jamal’s story is not unique. It’s so easy to pass judgment on him. But I often wonder what were the environmental conditions that created him. Men like Jamal don’t just ‘happen’. There are outside forces that forge men like that into who they are.

DLS: The play is largely about the interior and exterior realities of Jamal, but it is also about the times in which we live, the prison pipeline, poverty and desperation. So, can you talk a bit about the atmospheric elements of the play – the prison, the decimated community, poverty, desperation?

LEC: I wrote those elements as I experienced them. I was raised in the neighborhood Jamal describes. I’ve seen what severe poverty, drugs and educational apartheid can do to both a person and a community. It’s heart-breaking. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, it’s difficult for anyone to see beyond the hurt and broken glass strewn about.

DLS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow? She talks about the ways in which the mass incarcerations in this country quite successfully replaced the old Jim Crow society and culture. How do you see your play in light of Alexander’s work?

LEC: Yes, I am familiar with the book. I actually finished it recently. I feel like much of what Ms. Alexander states is spot on and Solitary is a poetic manifestation of that. I also feel like Solitary echoes the Allegory of The Cave by Plato. Both personal responsibility and institutional racism and inequity are in a constant tug of war with one another. While men like Jamal do have to take responsibilities for their action and overcome tremendous circumstances, we cannot dismiss the handicap and booby traps placed in front of them. 

DLS: You have a therapist in the play who attempts to interact with Jamal, to collect data, to make an “assessment” – what role would you say does psychiatry and psychology play in “pathologizing” our young men, especially young men of color, of impoverished conditions? 

LEC: Young men of color, especially those growing up in inner cities, face near impossible odds. In the age of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, it almost feels as if we’re living in a real world version of ‘The Hunger Games’. PTSD among inner city youth is real. These kids are growing up under similar conditions that soldiers at war face. But, unfortunately, there is no VA Hospital or any other kinds of services (other than incarceration) to help these young men cope with being constantly taught that their lives have no value in America. These young men are not anomalies or monsters. They are behaving the same way anyone of any race or ethnic background would when you take away access to good education, healthcare & social services, when you offer minimal employment opportunities, when you strip arts, sports, and music programs from schools, when you cram 45 kids into a classroom, pump drugs into the community, and train the police to shoot first and let the system sort everything out. I don’t care what your race or ethnicity is; if you live under those conditions, what can we expect to happen other than the results we see every day on the news?

DLS: What are your hopes for the play? What are your hopes for the young Jamals trying to grow up in the very difficult times of 2014 America? 

LEC: In all honesty, I’m not sure what I hope for with this play. What I know is that it has the power to start a conversation— with not only the Jamals of America but also those who have the power to tear down the structures in place that help to create them.

DLS: What are your own hopes? As a playwright. As an actor. You are about to enter your third year at Juilliard, to finish up an MFA in acting. Can you talk a little about your own personal journey, and about your visions and dreams for the future?

LEC: Every time I think about my personal journey I start to cry. I’m very fortunate. I could have very well been Jamal. Actually, now that I think about it… I am Jamal. I’m who Jamal could be if we remove even just two or three cards from that deck that’s stacked against him.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. What I do know is that whatever it will be, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

The Hidden River Playwrighting Award offers $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back for updates regarding the scheduling. Our next round of Hidden River Arts writing awards, including the playwrighting award, will deadline June 30. Please see our guidelines for further details.

Michael Tooher, winner of The Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award, Talks With Us


Our most recent winner of the Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award, Michael Tooher, was kind enough to sit down and talk about his winning play, The Perfect Sameness of Our Days which received a reading in Philadelphia this past April, as part of being the winning manuscript. Michael also received $1000.

His play, which addresses the suffering of a veteran with PTSD, was very well-received, and our audience was quick to discuss, during talk back time, how powerful the subject matter was, how sensitively the subject was handled.

1. The Perfect Sameness of Our Days addresses some very serious issues regarding returning vets in the United States, and the difficulties they experience. It focuses specifically on PTSD. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for this play, and your hopes for it?

It was a combination of thoughts and images, mostly from television and the Internet that were the start of the inspiration.I remember being appalled at the images of the casual brutality against the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point we had a general state that they didn’t keep statistics about citizens killed because “it wasn’t our job.” That, coupled with the neglect and abandonment of our returning soldiers by the very individuals and organizations that are supposed to care for them made me realize a terrible truth. No matter what side they are on, they are all victims. Days is the story of what happens when two of them meet. And because all intimate relationships are opaque to outsiders, you don’t learn the truth about the characters until the end. And even then it may or may not be the truth because they are hopelessly lost.

It strikes me that war, combat and conflict is not a normal state for human beings to find themselves in. So the only surprise here is that PTSD isn’t more prevalent. Ot perhaps it is and we have just chosen to employ magical thinking to deny to ourselves the horrible cost of our actions on warriors and civilians alike. This is tragedy in its purest form and Days, to me, reflects that. It’s a brief retelling of a terrible incident in an ugly place and there is absolutely no laughter or joy in it.

2. How would you describe yourself as a playwright? What are some of your primary interests and themes?

I like to think of myself as a wordsmith. It’s a job I like to do. I come from the technical end of the performing arts so the idea of crafting words has great appeal for me.

I’ve been writing for about 6 years now and what themes I’ve been able to identify are few because of the way I work. Almost everything I write is an experiment in form and style and I never know how it will turn out. That said it seems to me that dramatists have one universal truth,, that emotion is the language of mankind. I believe the more you can get on the page the better the play will be. As for themes, it seems to me that loneliness is the number one disease affecting humans. Also the terrible unknowable future of our planet, our society and in the end, ourselves, seem like fertile ground for drama.

Also, for some odd reason, I am completely obsessed with trees and doors. They keep popping up in my work and I haven’t a clue why. The Perfect Sameness of Our Days has a magical apricot tree in it that is a hallucination of a dimly remembered yet happier past.

3. Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities and the theatre community in your home area? What opportunities have you had to develop and produce locally?

Portland, Maine is a rocking theatre town. Not only are the professional theatres very active, there is a huge amount of constantly changing production activity. Informal groups come together all the time to produce work in storefronts, art galleries and the smaller theatre spaces. In June we have Portfringe, which this year is 50 performances in 7 days all over the city. I’ve been fortunate that my work has been featured in the Maine Playwrights Festival for the last 5 years and has won prizes and readings in other local festivals. On the production end, almost all of my full length productions and readings have been out of town. I’m not sure why, it’s really just the way it has worked out so far.

4. Do you have any advice to other playwrights, especially emerging playwrights?

Free advice is worth what you pay for it. This is what works for me. Your mileage may vary.

A) Treat writing like any other job. When you aren’t doing your day gig, write. Set a modest goal, say a page a day. You will quickly discover that you exceed your goal and very soon after that you will have a play.

B) If you start something, finish it.

C) Don’t edit while you write. Ever. Finish your first draft, put it to bed for 2 weeks then look at it with fresh eyes.

D) There is no such thing as writer’s block, you just need to go fill up your life experience tank. The inspiration will come in it’s own time and place. Like stagehands or cats, it can’t be controlled, just received.

E) Pinter said that “Acting informs playwrighting.” Try it, It’s fun and terrifying at the same time.

F) Trust your process. What works for you is what’s right.

G) Believe in yourself like a sickness. The theatre world is very competitive and some cope with their anxiety with smack talk. Ignore it, especially if it’s directed toward you.

5. Is there anything else you would like to share?

I would just like to take this moment to thank Hidden River Arts for the award. But what I am most grateful for was the extraordinary reading during
AprilFest at the Shublin Theatre. Days was very much a drawer play for me, Personally my favorite but I had real doubts as to it’s playability considering it’s subject matter and unrelenting grimness.
But the reading changed my perception of the play, The amazing response of the audience at the talkback, where they ignored the artists completely and proceeded to have
a conversation among themselves for an hour about the issues the play raises, will be forever etched in my memory.

Thank you.

And thank YOU, Michael, for your generous answers. Our actors were honored to take part in the play, and as they told you after the performance, it was something that struck very close to home for several of them. We had several actors who were also veterans performing during the reading, and for them, your play was nothing short of a miraculous way to express the struggles that they saw personally, among their brethren.

The 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award submission deadline is June 30, 2013 at midnight.
We are always looking for provocative, powerful plays, and welcome your submissions.