Faculty spotlight: Gabriel Jason Dean

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Gabriel Jason Dean is a visiting assistant professor of theatre and writer-in-residence who has been making waves recently here at Muhlenberg through his involvement with the Theatre and Dance Department’s newest and highly successful production: ‘Berg New Works (BNW). The project aimed to give opportunities to aspiring playwrights amongst the student body and alumni community. It simulated the process of developing a new play geared toward production in a world outside of the Baker Center for the Arts. What is especially valuable about Dean’s involvement is that his experience on BNW, in addition to the playwriting and creative writing courses he teaches, has all been informed by his experiences as an active playwright outside of the collegiate setting. 

On Feb. 8, Dean’s play, “Rift or White Lies,” premiered at Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ. The play followed the story of two brothers– one a progressive novelist and the other a convicted murderer and member of a white supremacist prison gang– trying to reconnect despite the vast difference in their beliefs through familial love and shared childhood trauma. The play explores important questions about the effects of ideological divide on interpersonal relationships and whether or not blood is truly thicker than water. 

The play is unique in that, although predominantly fiction, it is rooted somewhat in reality, as it is based on Dean and his brother. Speaking on the process of playwriting of this caliber and the vulnerability that comes with it, Dean said, “I really struggled to write the documentary memoir version of this play. Knowing that at any moment if something got too intense for me, it was nice having the ability to move into a fictional place.” 

Conjointly with such challenges, the process of bringing the play together was not linear. “It started in 2021 when Luna first commissioned the play,” he shared. “We were deep in the lockdown and the artistic director, Ari Laura Kreith, and I had the idea of something that could be experienced in the now instead of a traditional theatrical play. So the first iteration of ‘Rift’ was done over text, where audience members who signed up would receive pieces of letters, photos, text message threads and all of the ways me and my brother were actually communicating with each other. It was a true documentary piece, or what I’m calling, ‘performed dramaturgy.’” 

Although the production watched by eager New Jersey theatergoers throughout February and early March is extremely different from the original version, it was still helpful in shaping his piece into what it is today. “It made me realize how pervasive this kind of rift is. Everybody could understand and relate to this, even if it wasn’t to an extent as extreme as mine, and I got to experience my audience’s reaction to the building of the story in real-time as opposed to in retrospect, which is what we normally do with a play.”

Dean also talked about how he was supported by Muhlenberg during his writing process for “Rift or White Lies.” Being the only active playwright on campus at the moment, he and the school are actively figuring out how that support may look for projects like this in the future. The school was able to offer time and money and even house the production’s dramaturg thanks to the provost. Amongst his colleagues, he specifically shouts out Francesca Coppa, Ph.D., Dawn Lonsinger, Ph.D., and others in the English department for their contributions throughout the process.

This is not his first big project. He has written many original and award nominated works such as “Qualities of Starlight,” “In Bloom,” “Terminus,” “Heartland” and more across the mediums of theatre, film and television. However, “Rift” can be a lot to contend with, he points out, and he was more nervous to share this piece than he has been with past work. “By and large, I feel generally supported as a playwright here, but we’re still figuring out what that looks like and what that means.” 

Dean also spoke to the fact that the relationship between him and the school throughout his journey with “Rift” and generally as an active playwright has been mutually beneficial. Many students have helped Dean when interacting with his writing. “For me, I want to know what the 18-22 crowd is thinking about my plays. What I love about Muhlenberg students is that you all are really honest with your critiques.”  

Inversely, the work he does outside of the classroom plays a big role in informing how he teaches. Questions he asks himself as a writer — why this story on a stage and why now? — are the same ones he poses to his creative writing students. He also hopes that seeing someone who is engaging with the craft of playwriting daily helps move students from the hypothetical idea of playwriting to the realization that it is possible to achieve. 

“Playwriting is at your fingertips as a student,” he said. “The vision around ‘Berg New Works’ is that we need to offer our students a co-circular way to move from the safety of the classroom and the laboratory space into the real world of production.” 

Dean acted as the artistic director of BNW, which opened this past weekend, with more staged readings to come in April. The production allowed aspiring writers to practice their craft alongside him. “‘Berg New Works places the playwright at the center, and we are here to achieve their vision,” he said. 

“The process that I am trying to create is based on 20 plus years of play development, not only for my own plays, but with other people’s as well. It was important to me that a taste of what might happen in a new play development process geared towards production out in the real world is simulated in this space, not just for the playwrights, but for the whole production team.” 

Outside of BNW and writing classes, there are a plethora of creative opportunities for students on campus that Dean encourages students to use. Many student groups offer important festivals and series for playwrights to showcase their original scripts. He speaks to the educationally effective and supportive nature of the often low-stakes environments provided by projects such as the Red Door Play Festival and the New Play Reading Series, hosted by the Muhlenberg Theatre Association. “Go in there and do something that scares the hell out of you,” he urged. “Have some tough conversations. That’s learning!” 

He also emphasized that all it takes is a script, a few people and a space to get your work out there. Being unable to partake in the set opportunities offered by the Theatre and Dance Department or student-run organizations should not be enough to stop you from creating and working. “You need to be your best advocate, and at the center of your process,” said Dean. 

Dean cannot stress enough the importance of reading plays out loud: plays written by others and your own. He shares his own experiences as an actor first, making actor friends whom he then recruited to read his plays in casual settings. Through this, he was able to hear divergences in his stories that helped with the shaping of them. 

“We are moved by plays because they come from a passionate vision that starts with the playwright and then is achieved by all of this collaboration,” he said. “I know from my own experience from being a young playwright that it can be scary to say ‘My voice should be heard.’ It’s not arrogance. It’s passion and confidence earned from trial and error. That’s how I became a playwright.” 

The cast of “Rift or White Lies” took its final bow on Mar. 3, as did the casts of ‘Berg New Works’ productions of “-in-chief” and “The Haunting of Hartfield Hall.” Dean continues to teach courses throughout the semester, while mentoring many students and continuing to work with the school to build a support system for the writing processes of aspiring playwrights at Muhlenberg. 

(Mar. 8) Exciting update for Dean’s play “Rift or White Lies”: It has been extended and is now closing at Luna on Mar. 10. The show is also set to transfer to an off-Broadway theater in the fall!

Megan Hansen '26 is an opinion editor and writer studying film, theater, and writing. She is very excited to be working on the Weekly staff, helping to amplify the voices of her fellow classmates. You may also find her working behind the scenes with the Muhlenberg Theater Association, writing and directing short films, or even on a volleyball court in the fieldhouse on a random Tuesday night!

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