Ian Finley

2012 Piedmont Laureate, Playwriting

The arts make life worth living.  They generate in equal measure the two things most necessary for life on earth: Wonder and wisdom.

ian_finleyIan Finley originally hails from Utah, where he studied at the University of Utah, and premiered YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN: A TRIO FOR SECRETARIES (KCATF 2001) and THE NATURE OF THE NAUTILUS (Kennedy Center/Jean Kennedy Smith Award winner 2002).  Written for a company of deaf actors and performed in American Sign Language, NAUTILUS was Finley’s first experience writing material intended to spur conversation between diverse communities.

Finley received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of Performing Arts.  While there he received the Harry Kondoleon Award for playwriting and premiered GREEN SQUARE, NIGHTENGALE SONG and SUSPSENSE (recently performed by Bare Theatre Company in Durham and as part of the 10 x 10 Festival in the Triangle at the Carrboro Arts Center).

In 2004, Finley moved permanently to Raleigh to serve as Director of Education at Burning Coal Theatre Company.  In this position he has taught playwriting, Shakespeare and theatre arts to students aged seven to seventy, for grade schools, universities and other organizations throughout the Triangle.   He also leads Burning Coal’s Summer Theatre Conservatories, regular educational trips to New York and London, and Burning Coal’s annual KidsWrite Festival.  This festival produces new plays by students grades 6 – 12 from eight counties in the Piedmont area.

In 2005, Burning Coal Theatre Company Artistic Director Jerome Davis suggested the possibility of writing an original play about the history of those buried at Historic Oakwood Cemetery which could be performed in the cemetery itself.  Working with historian Bruce Miller, Finley wrote the script, OAKWOOD.  The performance was a success and led to the creation of the “Our Histories” series at Burning Coal.  For “Our Histories,” Finley has partnered with numerous Wake County organizations (including the Raleigh City Museum, Mordecai Historic Park, the Town of Cary, Raleigh City Cemetery and others) to create original scripts inspired by the history of the area and performed in spaces relevant to the characters.  As part of the “Our Histories” series, Finley has researched and dramatized over 75 separate stories of the history of Wake County.

The high point of Finley’s work dramatizing the history of his adopted home was the 2009 premier of 1960 at Burning Coal Theatre Company.  Working with various Burning Coal company members over five years, interviewing people throughout the community, Finley crafted a script exploring the desegregation of Raleigh’s schools.  The premier took place in the restored Murphey School Auditorium where the vote to desegregate the schools had taken place fifty years before.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Finley has worked on film projects and explored the effect of interactivity on narrative structure via computer game design.  His work in this area includes THE KLOCKWERK: THE SHADOW IN THE CATHEDRAL (Textfyre Inc, 2008), KAGED (1st Place, International Interactive Fiction Competition, 2000), EXHIBITION and BABEL (XYZZY Award for Best Story).

Finley continues to teach throughout the Triangle area for Burning Coal and write plays that he hopes will  spark discussion and bridge community lines.  His next script, a two-part adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s JUDE THE OBSCURE , will premier at Burning Coal Theatre Company in April of 2012.



There are many good, practical reasons for the inclusion of the arts in our lives.  It teaches, as nothing else can, the sort of creative, synthetic thinking that is needed in the 21st century work force.  It is a major economic driver, generating substantial direct revenue and supporting dozens of other industries. Where arts go, jobs follow.

These are important arguments, and should be shouted from the rooftops.  But they’re not what I want to talk about.  I want to propose another reason why the arts can and should be a part of our lives, every day.  The arts make life worth living.  They generate in equal measure the two things most necessary for life on earth: Wonder and wisdom.  Food, water, shelter, these things are important, but they’ll only get you so far.  Without wonder at the possibilities of this world and wisdom to put it into action, one may exist, but cannot be said to truly live.

The arts provide these things in a concentrated dose.  An oil-painting or a pas-de-deux may connect images in ways we never expected, and will never be able to ignore again.  A perfect turn of phrase may reveal a truth so succinctly that our paradigms shift at that moment for the rest of our lives.  That potent combination of insight and revelation, compressed into a single work of art, can and does change lives.

I’m not talking about “entertainment,” which is so often considered a synonym for art.  There is overlap, but not all entertainment is art, and not all art “entertains” us.  Few audiences leave King Lear whistling a happy tune.  What art does ultimately is dazzle us, move us, and teach us.

And while all great art can do this, playwriting has a special place.  While much of art is a direct conversation between the artist and the audience, through the medium of their work, drama is always an act of translation.  The playwright gives the script not to the audience, but to another group of artists, designers, directors, actors, who create the final work.  Drama then is inherently collaborative, formed through interaction and inviting diverse audiences to discuss, debate, and act. Having worked in computer game design, I’ve been involved in long talks about the role of interactivity in art.  Drama proves that we have had “interactive art” for thousands of years.

As a teacher, I have encountered diverse attitudes towards drama and art in general:  that it is a luxury to enjoy, a chore to endure, or an obstacle to fear.  It is none of these.  Instead, it is a fundamental tool.  It is the crowbar we use to escape the prison of the self and understand others.  It is the hammer that builds up communities and the bridges between them.  It is the light that gives us direction and hope.  Art is not for “someone else.”   It can, and must, empower all of us, no matter our background or current position.   This is the belief that motivates me, and which I hope to promote as Piedmont Laureate.