This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Bos and Thureen face off on the racquetball court while a third cop tackles paperwork in the precinct's community rec center-turned-police station in the play Buddy Cop 2. Photo courtesy The Debate Society.

Room for Debate

In the overpopulated, highly competitive world of New York theater, it’s not easy to make a splash. Yet a pair of Vassar alums has struck theatrical gold with Brooklyn-based the Debate Society. Hannah Bos ’00 and Paul Thureen ’00 co-founded the theater company with their friend and colleague, Oliver Butler.

On September 24 and 25, these creative powerhouses came to Vassar to workshop with drama majors, focusing on ensemble development work. “The focus is on freeing up creative impulse, deepening their collaborative relationships, and pushing their aesthetic ideas,” Thureen explains. “Our approach is to use things we’ve learned making plays together to help students develop their own unique ways of working.”

Bos and Thureen started performing in plays together during their sophomore year at Vassar. They attended the National Theater Institute together, visited Russia (for theater) together, and ultimately wrote their senior thesis at Vassar together.

Two years after graduation, they were together again—this time in New York City, where they did a reading of A Thought About Raya, their senior thesis. Butler, a play director/developer, was in the audience. (“I didn’t go to Vassar, but I wish I did,” he jokes. “I was at a battle of the bands at Vassar in ’98 though, so there’s that.”)

Bos, Thureen, and Butler worked as a trio to put on the play. They worked well together, and by 2004 had formed the Debate Society, with Boz and Thureen as the theater company's writers and principal performers.

They engage in devised theater—an organic, collaborative playwriting process in which the writers are also typically the performers. “It’s sort of a golden age for collaborative theater making in American theater right now,” Bos explains. Golden age or not, the Debate Society is riding high.

Bos and Thureen have been called—individually and collectively—brilliant, nuanced, ingenious, wickedly funny, fearless. Village Voice gave them a Best of Award for 2010 for Best Argument for Devised Theater, noting that “in recent years, a fresh round of experimental companies has emerged …  They're all excellent, but the Debate Society has made a particularly fine case for the genre.” The Society’s plays are regularly named “critic’s picks” by the New York Times, New York Magazine, the New Yorker, and Time Out NY. What’s more, for two years running, Bos, Thureen and Butler have been named Sundance Institute Fellows, for which they attended Sundance’s noted Theatre Lab.

The Debate Society builds its plays from the outside in, creating a rich and detailed world in which the characters and the narrative unfold. Consider its recent and acclaimed Buddy Cop 2, a dark comedy about three 1980s small-town cops whose office has been temporarily located in the re-purposed basketball court of the community recreation center. The Society started by creating the "world of the play," Bos explains. Only once the "flavor and feel of the place" came together, notes Thureen, did the characters that occupy that world really begin to take shape.

Their playwriting process is clearly working. Based on the response of critics and audiences alike, there's plenty of room for Debate in New York City's theater scene. –Peter Bronski

Hannah Bos

Hannah Bos

Paul Thureen

Paul Thureen

October 2011

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