By Benjamin Dombrowski
June 1, 2021
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 crisis has forced the world to reimagine every dimension of daily life. Industries of all sorts, from healthcare, education, to restaurant dining, have all been forced to adapt to the realities of pandemic life. That pressure to adapt, and the risk of failing to do so, has been particularly acute in the world of theater arts. Even over a year into the pandemic, many theaters and theater companies remain closed to live audiences.
Since graduating from Brandeis University in 2013, Brooklynite, creative producer, and dramaturg Iyvon Edebiri has been working hard to revolutionize the theater industry long before the start of the pandemic, both on and off the stage. Her most recent project, The Parsnip Ship, is a modern podcast play company bringing underproduced playwrights and artists to the digital stage. Inspired by the popular radio plays of the 20th century, The Parsnip Ship is redefining what it means to produce theater in a time when traditional in-house theater productions are largely on hold. However, for Iyvon, The Parsnip Ship is not only an answer to the crisis facing theater arts today, but an example of the future of theater more generally.
In a recent conversation with IGS, Iyvon discussed her journey from Brandeis into the energized world of NYC theater. Along the way, she also shared her thoughts about the impact of COVID on the arts industry, the future of theater in a post-pandemic world, and advice for graduating seniors hoping to break into the world of performing arts.
I know your current project is called The Parsnip Ship. Could you talk a little bit about what you do there?
Yeah. So I’m doing a lot of different things and Parsnip is one. It’s an organization that I run as the artistic director. In general, I’m a creative producer, dramaturge, and company manager. All of my work tends to specifically intersect in one of those roles.
So with Parsnip I’m doing a lot of creative producing and dramaturgy specifically to support my organization. [The Parsnip Ship] is all about sharing or bringing back, especially before COVID, the world of radio plays as a viable form of theatrical entertainment. I want the masses to really consider radio plays to be part of the theatrical cannon, especially in the new play development sector, while also using Parsnip as a vehicle for underproduced, undershowcased playwright, musicians, and directors all in an accessible format. So anything related to audio theater and new play development tends to fall within my Parsnip Ship sphere
How has it been being a company manager in NYC? Could you talk more about that chapter of your career?
So a lot of my upcoming work is spanning indie, experimental, device theater to off-Broadway and I’m usually working on this through creative producing and dramaturgy. More so before COVID I was working as a company manager […] but I do still consider myself a company manager because those skills have been super, super helpful in the other two roles that I hold and how I work and collaborate with artists.
That actually came from my time at Brandeis as a community advisor, because I didn’t know what a company manager was when I applied for a job. When it was explained to me, what a company manager did, I thought ‘Oh! It’s an RA for artists. I can do that!’. I was the head CA of one of the buildings in Massel.
I’ve really, really enjoyed the logistical and creative challenges of being a company manager. I think a lot of the skillsets of being a company manager at such a young age in New York City was fortified by being a CA.
Did you move right out to NYC after graduating from Brandeis?
I’m from New York City, so I moved right back to Brooklyn and started my career in theater from scratch. Most of my theater contacts were in Boston. So yeah, I started from scratch in my own city to figure out theater and what I wanted to do.
What made you want to go back to New York instead of staying in Boston?
I realized that one great thing about Boston theater is that it’s small, so you tend to see a lot of the same people. I’m still subscribed to newsletters and often I see names that remind me ‘Oh yeah, I saw that person in this show, this show, this show’. Boston theater has a really tight community, but at the same time, it’s really hard to break into that community because people are so clicky.
When I was thinking about whether I would come back to New York or Boston, I realized that New York was a better bet. Yes, it’s a bigger pond and there are more fishes, but I just knew I wanted to have more experiences and opportunities that the Boston theater scene couldn’t provide because it’s small. And that’s works for some people – it just wasn’t for me, at the time.
I’m a person who needs to see the many different things that are available before I start to specifically hone in on what interests me. I don’t think if I had stayed in Boston, I would have really understood or found a passion for new play development. When I came to New York I realized that new play development was this space and this thing. That wasn’t even mentioned to me during my time at Brandeis in the theater department, we were reading a lot of classic plays. We only read one black play while I was there, which is crazy. It was so limited in scope and I didn’t want that.
What are your thoughts regarding the impact of COVID on the creative energy of the theater industry? Are people really excited to get back out there once theaters can open again?
Yes and no. I think a year ago, if you had asked if we were ready to get back to the theater, I would have said yes, for sure.
The closer it comes to that time, because it’s coming in the fall […], I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the hardships that exist in theater, the living paycheck to paycheck, the fact that more people are making money with unemployment on a weekly basis than they would as full-time working artists. I don’t think people want to go back to that.
But people miss audiences, we miss connecting with each other. Right now I don’t think I necessarily miss shows, but once I finally sit in one and the lights go dark I’ll probably just start to cry.
I think people just really want to come back safely and consciously. It was a very traumatic year for the arts industry and not everyone made it, not everyone survived. That’s really hard and I think we’re going to need lots of grace.
We’re all people. I think that’s what we realized, even without our art we’re all people. So there is excitement, but there’s also anxiety.
Do more people see genres like the one The Parsnip Ships exists in as a solution, as a way to move on with theater in a post COVID world?
I think it’s a solution for some, but it’s not the end all be all. Radio plays over the last year have definitely made its mark as viable theater, which is the thing I’ve wanted. It happened, it happened rather quickly.
But there are still things that need to be worked out. Union stuff needs to be worked out.
However, radio plays and audio theater are going to be here to stay, including other forms of digital theater. I think it would be really [messed] up if theater companies offered all of these virtual offerings and then just took them away.
We as an industry need to parse through what all of these things really mean for us. If we’re a nonprofit and our work is for the greater good, we are anchored to the thought and idea of things being accessible for everyone. That includes physical accessibility, that includes theater being affordable, and then also, how do we continue to cultivate community?
COVID has shown us again that borders are kind of meaningless in this digital world, especially when it comes to theater making. We should continue that, we shouldn’t shrink back and do the same thing we did before.
Was it frustrating for you that it took something catastrophic like COVID for your genre of theater to be more widely recognized and appreciated?
Yeah, I think it was, it really was. It sometimes feels like you’re screaming into the void that “I’m doing this cool thing! I need money and support. This is a way forward!”, and people just say no. And now, radio theater is one of the few forms of reliable theater that we’ve had over the last year. So I do feel frustrated that it took this long, but I’m glad that it happened.
I wouldn’t have ever thought a pandemic would have been the cause, I thought that the rise of podcasts would hopefully bleed into the theatrical sector and people would realize that really good storytelling could be done in this way. […] I’m also glad that Americans specifically have caught on. There’s not this issue in the UK, because the UK has always had a strong love and support for audio theaters, specifically through the BBC.
Are you afraid of going back to that old normal again after COVID or do you think that real progress has been made, that people recognize radio theater as legitimate?
Yes I do because it’s borderless. We just recorded a radio play that had people in Chicago, Los Angeles, and in New York. We just did a production together, a legitimate SAG production. Everyone did it in the comfort of their own homes. Risk was mitigated. So, why wouldn’t we want to do this again? Corona, it’s going to be here for a while.
2020 told us anything could happen, literally anything could happen. If we go forward with that mindset, why wouldn’t we just set up systems and processes so that this is a viable, consistent source of media? People in theater have gotten really inventive. To go back to what it was before would be boring.
With a graduating class going into a world of work that’s totally different than anything anyone ever expected, do you have any advice for Brandeis graduates hoping to get involved in the art and theater industries?
For one, definitely be bold and excited about your ideas. Even if no one has done it before, or someone has done it but you think you can improve upon it in your own unique way, go for it!
Also, Brandeis collabs are really dope. Finding friends, even if you think they might not be necessarily in your industry, it’s interesting the ways in which Brandeis people are knowledgeable and eager to engage with you and collaborate with you on your ideas.
So for example, at Parsnip, our head of special projects is Jesse Manning who graduated literally next to me in 2013. I lived across the hall from him freshman year […] We also have Todd Kirkland who I also met freshman year, graduated 2013 with Jesse and I, and he runs the digital operations for parsnip. And he’s not a theater industry person. He was at Google when we reconnected and he came to a Parsnip episode and he loved it. He came to more and asked how he could get involved and support this mission and this project. […] So I think that reaching out to some Brandeis networks is great. Try writing to people to see what they’re doing and try reconnecting with people.
For more information about The Parsnip Ship and Iyvon’s work, visit