Spotlight: Back on Stage

She was hailed as one of Washington’s best young playwrights. Then her career hit a bump. Now Karen Zacarías has four new shows opening.

By: Charlotte Sommers

Eight years ago playwright Karen Zacarías won the Helen Hayes Outstanding New Play award, yet few theatergoers know her name. That may change.

Zacarías has four productions opening locally this year and more in the works.

First up is Round House Theatre’s The Book Club Play, a comedy set in motion when a new member breaks into the sacred circle of a long-established book club.

She has new children’s musicals opening at the Kennedy Center and Imagination Stage, a script in the works for Arena Stage, and the area premiere of Mariela in the Desert, a mystical drama about a troubled family of Mexican artists, rewritten after a rough Chicago opening in 2005.

Despite the Helen Hayes Award in 2000 for The Sins of Sor Juana, local theaters had shown interest only in Zacarías’s children’s plays until this year. Theater for young audiences is a passion for the 38-year-old, who lives in DC’s Adams Morgan with her lawyer husband, Rett, and three preschool-age children; she founded Young Playwrights’ Theater, a nonprofit that teaches playwriting in DC schools.

Resilience and a sunny disposition have carried her through leaner years. “She’s learned some tough lessons about the business,” says Book Club Play director Nick Olcott, “but has never let herself become jaded.” Recalling the “painful but healthy experience” in Chicago when she made ill-advised cuts to her play, she says she has learned to trust her artistic vision.

A native of Mexico, Zacarías, the granddaughter of a film director, often mines her Hispanic heritage for material. “Writing,” she says, “gives me great joy. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six. I bought a typewriter with all my tooth-fairy money.”