Broadway-Bound Playwright Creates “New Works” Program at FSU


Playwright Keenan Scott II ’09 is an artist who has never forgotten his roots.

When Scott's critically acclaimed and now Broadway-bound play Thoughts of a Colored Man had its regional debut at Baltimore's Center Stage, an eager group of Frostburg State University students, professors and administrators bused downstate to see it. Scott had written and workshopped the play a decade earlier while he was a student at FSU. After the Baltimore performance, his former professors extended an invitation for Scott to return to the Frostburg campus to work with students.

Keenan Scott in FSU sweatshirt

"They said, 'If you want to come back, we'd love to have you,'" he recalled.

That was all that the playwright needed to hear.

He soon pitched the idea of creating a "Frostburg New Works Incubator Program" to develop new projects from professional and student playwrights with the goal of receiving commercial performances. The program would use the talents of FSU theatre students and introduce them to industry-level training on material development and workshopping. The Frostburg administration jumped at Scott's suggestion of a partnership.

Scott has been heralded as a strong voice in professional theatre for his impactful, on-stage presentations of the Black experience. His plays have been performed at the National Black Theatre, the NYC Fringe Festival, Howard University and Gala Hispanic Theatre. He was included in a recent Los Angeles Times article asking playwrights to share their experiences in the predominantly white world of professional theatre. However, Scott insists he writes his works to inspire all audiences. "Racism shouldn't have to be my muse," he said.

“This isn't a movie. This is real life. ... We are now programmed to pull out our phones instead of dialing 9-1-1.”

To prepare for the "New Works" program, Scott met with Nicole Mattis, chair of the FSU Department of Theatre and Dance, where he presented several possible plays. Mattis chose Social Media Massacre. The concept focuses on the psychological effects of social media, over-sensationalism and classism. Scott was intrigued how social media can be an addiction and can desensitize users to horrific events.

"This isn't a movie. This is real life," Scott stressed, noting how the shooting death of rapper Nipsey Hussle, captured on video in 2019, shook him. "It jolted me. Seeing this being recorded. We are now programmed to pull out our phones instead of dialing 9-1-1."

Developing this controversial concept with young actors would be an ideal pairing. "It was perfect to develop the play with this age group. This generation would be great for this play."

However, of all the ideas he submitted, Social Media Massacre was the only one not fully written. But the playwright welcomed the challenge.

The original plan was for Scott to come to Frostburg to perform an artist-in-residency, meet with the cast in rehearsal spaces and mount a campus-wide production. It was a natural fit for Scott who, after graduating from FSU, spent several years teaching English and social studies, while continuing to write his plays.

"I love the classroom. I love working with youth," Scott said. "My favorite type of teaching is in a mentorship [setting]."

But then, the story took a turn when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Scott and Mattis did a quick rewrite of their original plan and converted the incubator program to a virtual format, and Scott quickly adapted his script to be performed online. He also agreed to cast the show through virtual auditions, as well as direct the project from his Brooklyn home. These changes did not deter him from the goal of giving students real-world theatrical experience, as many professional auditions are now submitted on tape.

Scott admits to having done little acting before he arrived at Frostburg. His pre-FSU resume included one play at his Waldorf-area high school. But he knows the importance of actors taking chances and networking.

"It's all about the connections," Scott said. "When you get through a certain door, that's what's going to set you apart."

Scott cast the play, and students got ready for an intensive two-week online rehearsal that would culminate in a recording that was presented online in January as a one-time preview of a work in progress.

African American woman surrounded by mobile devices; illustration

On a November evening, the Social Media Massacre cast safely assembled in their individual video boxes, getting ready to rehearse new pages of the script sent by Scott earlier that day. The young actors were excited to work with a professional playwright, have input on the script and make that all-important industry connection.

"I feel that we got a backstage exclusive," said Dominique Little, a sophomore from Baltimore. "When I first auditioned, I didn't know what would come of it. But you're putting your face out there. It's a great opportunity."

Gershawn Mason, a senior from Charles County, was nervous at first, but that feeling subsided once he spent time with Scott in rehearsal. "It was an imaginary pressure. He's really chill, really approachable. You don't feel intimidated."

All of the students feel privileged to be the first actors to breathe life into Scott's characters and have input on them and the evolving script. "The students handled the changes and development extremely well," Scott admitted.

"We get a new script every day of the process," said Brian Records, a sophomore from Cumberland. "As actors, we usually don't have a lot of input. We feel so blessed, lucky and fortunate to be working with someone who was in our seats just a decade ago."

virtual meeting screen with student actors
virtual meeting screen with student actors
virtual meeting screen with student actors

While it may have been a decade, Scott is quick to think back to his own days on the Frostburg campus. "I always try to place myself in their shoes," said Scott, who was impressed with the students' maturity. "All of them rose to the occasion. No inkling of an attitude or ego. There was an extreme level of professionalism in the room."

Mattis gives 100 percent credit to Scott for setting that professional tone. "He knew how to enter the virtual room wearing the hat of a teacher, director and professional playwright. Keenan focused his attention on giving the students a professional experience through the development of the play."

While Scott was working on the script with Frostburg students, he received confirmation that his play he wrote at FSU a decade earlier, Thoughts of a Colored Man, would receive a Broadway run next season. Like in a stage play, the story was coming full circle. But Scott did not allow his life-changing news to deter him from his work with his FSU students.

"Keenan is one of the most present people I know," Mattis added, noting that he was in meetings about his Broadway-bound play during the day and working with his FSU students at night. "When he entered the online room, all that mattered were the people in the room. He was a nurturing support system for everyone involved."

As Scott heads to Broadway, everyone is waiting to see the gifted playwright's "next act." Whatever direction his story goes, he is definitely making his mark.

"Legacy is very important to me," he added.

And the playwright is definitely leaving a rich one at his alma mater.