Bryna Turner


Fresh out of the Mason Gross School of the Arts’ M.F.A. playwriting program, Bryna Turner, top, began writing Bull in a China Shop, about early-20th-century feminists Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks.

Chasi Annexy

A month after her graduation from Mason Gross School of the Arts’ M.F.A. program in playwriting, Bryna Turner swore she’d never write another play. And she was absolutely never writing another play about love. Turner MGSA’16, reeling from a recent breakup, was sitting in a café with a friend from the program, talking about the last thing she wanted to discuss: writing plays. Oh, OK, sure, her friend responded—but wasn’t there that one play she was going to write about, you know, those women?

“Those women” were Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks, early-20th-century feminists and romantic partners whose sterling achievements—Woolley was the 11th president of Mount Holyoke College and Marks became head of its English department—and turbulent four-decade relationship gripped Turner, a Mount Holyoke alumna, when she came across links to their letters and documents on the college’s Instagram feed.

“OK,” she agreed to her friend, “I’m never going to write a play again, but just let me sit down and write some short scenes while these things are still in my mind.” Twenty-four hours later, she had finished the first draft of the play Bull in a China Shop. In 90 minutes and a rapid-fire series of scenes, it chronicles the joys and stresses of the couple’s long relationship against the backdrop of an era that saw the rise of feminism, the fight for (and achievement of) women’s suffrage, and the postwar stalling of women’s ascent to equality.

In June of 2016, in preparation for a staged reading of the play, the director, Ellie Sachs, sent an invitation to the reading of Bull to Evan Cabnet, who’d just been named artistic director of Lincoln Center’s 8-year-old program for new playwrights, LCT3. He couldn’t make it, he apologized, so Sachs sent him a copy of the play, which he read on his phone. Two days later, he called Turner to say he wanted it to be his debut production with LCT3. “What do you think?” he asked her.

“I think you’re crazy,” she responded. Like a fox, as the saying goes. The play was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Time Out New York lauded Turner for dispensing with “two hoary shibboleths: that history is perforce dry and feminists unfunny.” And the New York Times praised her “auspicious debut” as “pugnacious, tender, and gloriously funny.” Lincoln Center added an additional six performances to the play’s 50-performance run, which dazzled the playwright. “Before this,” she says, “my longest running show was at Rutgers, and it was three performances. On the fourth night, I was like, ‘It’s my longest-running show! I’ve never had a night four!’”

Turner hasn’t decided on a follow-up to Bull; the experience of her first professional run, she says, has been “a little overwhelming.” But whatever she chooses to do, it’s pretty certain to have a night four.