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Almost one year ago, actors took to the Olney Theatre Center stage and brought an exciting world premiere production to life. The Joy That Carries You by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller, a heartfelt play about an interracial couple navigating their first year together, saw its very first performance in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, where audiences were struck by its humor, poignancy, and poetry. Perhaps you even saw it yourself!

But where did this play come from and how did it make it to our stage? How were these local artists able to create a piece that went on to receive a full production? Insert the Vanguard Arts Fund, an exciting new work initiative launched by Olney Theatre Center in 2017. 

With a $350,000 endowment gift from the Eugene B. Casey Foundation, the Vanguard Arts Fund was designed to support the development of exciting new projects, including the hit musical A.D. 16, the Deaf-hearing production of The Music Man, and of course, the beautiful play The Joy That Carries You. By providing resources for workshops and bringing artists together to facilitate collaboration, the Vanguard Arts Fund nurtures groundbreaking ideas and helps bring them to the stage.

Because of the initiative’s success, the Foundation added $1 million to the endowment in 2022, and we are now accepting applications from creators, artists, writers, and more for the 2023-2024 season. 

To read more about Dani Stoller’s experience as a Vanguard playwright, see our conversation below! And to learn more about how to apply for the Vanguard Arts Fund, visit here..


What project did you work on with the support of the Vanguard Arts Fund, and is there anyone you collaborated with?

Awa Sal Secka and I co-wrote The Joy That Carries You.


At what stage of development was your project when you were selected for the Vanguard Arts Fund? Was it an idea you had? A script that you had drafted? 

It was an idea, I believe. We brought it to Jason with the pitch: It’s a reverse Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but modern-day, queer, about a Black Baptist family and an Ashkenazi Jewish family, and also…there will be spoken word poetry!


What was the Vanguard process like? What sort of support did you receive? What were you able to accomplish? 

Amazing! Intense! Crazy! We were given an incredible director, a brilliant cast, a wonderful dramaturg, and ample time to create our world. Our first Vanguard led to our first draft and our second led to an entirely new draft which we went into rehearsals for our world premiere with!


Were you able to collaborate with other artists? What was that collaboration like?

We were able to collaborate with an incredible group of actors and the brilliant Paige Hernandez and Faedra Carpenter as our director and dramaturg, respectively. It was so wonderful to have such dedicated, creative, intelligent artists working on our piece. Awa and I felt so supported as we explored different storylines, endings, and character arcs. It was such a blessing to have a professional team dedicated to our production.


What came next for the project you were working on? Has it received a full production? What future do you see for it? 

We had our world premiere at Olney Theatre Center! It was a beautiful production! We received five Helen Hayes Award nominations, including Best New Play. We are now working with agents to see where it goes next! We’re confident that it has a long future ahead of us, and that is in large part due to the work we did at Olney Theatre Center.


Would you recommend the Vanguard Arts Fund to other artists? Who would you recommend this opportunity to? 

Yes! I would absolutely recommend Vanguard to other artists! I think that wherever you are in the creative process, there is room for you to potentially receive a Vanguard grant. If you have a clear vision and are dedicated to seeing that vision come to life, you should absolutely apply!



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