When you sit in front of the TV to rail at Charlie Sheen or behind your iPod to lament Lady Gaga’s latest, they don’t hear you. They float happily along in a cocoon of well-paid ignorance, and your frustrations become smoke from a fire no one else will ever see.
New play festivals are different. An author waits captively, absorbing praise or lack of it – and, if he’s smart, incorporating ideas into his next draft. When the play gets produced the following year, you may learn you’ve altered dramatic history.
That’s how events might work in Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s first Nuvoices for a Nugeneration Festival.
Four authors will gather this week to hear their plays read by local actors. They’ll sit through feedback sessions – more about that in a bit – and the audience and a panel of judges will declare a winner, who’ll get a full production in ATC’s 2013-14 season. (I’m one of the six judges.)
Parts of this process ought to sound familiar to veteran theatergoers: Charlotte Repertory Theatre held a new play fest annually through 2003, before going belly-up in 2005. Claudia Carter Covington, who read scripts for that event for almost 20 years, joined Karen Lamb to read 288 entries from around the world for this new festival.
They submitted their top 10 choices to Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker, ATC’s executive director and artistic director, who picked four shows that have never been performed anywhere.
“As members of the National New Play Network, we’ve shared in rolling premieres and commissioned works such as ‘Southern Rapture,’ ” says Decker.
“We’ve wanted to do a new play festival for years but needed to wait until we had the money. We’d like to find a diamond in the rough and scrape off the carbon. Hopefully, after it’s born of our organization, a play will be discovered elsewhere.”
Finally fulfilling a dream
That money came as a two-year, $70,000 grant from the Women’s Impact Fund. It will underwrite the first full production, a second set of readings in 2013 and a second full production in the 2014-15 season.
Decker says the grant came with no restrictions, and he gave none to Covington and Lamb, except to rule out musicals. ATC solicited work from programs that give Master of Fine Arts degrees to playwrights and posted details at websites playwrights read.
“I didn’t notice a consistency (in themes), the way I did in the years I read for Charlotte Rep,” says Covington.
“Back then, there’d be years where everything was about Alzheimer’s or sexual identity issues. If there was a new theme now, it’s that people had started to write about wars again.”
Yet the conflicts in the four winners are mostly domestic and personal. Here’s how those plays stack up, according to ATC’s blurbs:
“Still,” by Jen Silverman. Morgan’s baby was born dead, and young Dolores is pregnant with a child she doesn’t want. Morgan’s midwife, shaken by guilt, has abandoned her practice to seek redemption. As all three confront their fears, desires and each other, dead baby Constantinople roams the world, looking for the meaning of the word “wow,” a satisfying explanation of S&M, and above all, his mother.
“Narrow Daylight,” by Sevan Kaloustian Greene. Susan Davis is stunned by the death of her son, an Iraq War soldier. Lena, an Iraqi teen, shows up at her door, claiming to be the wife of that son. Eastern and Western cultures collide, turning everything upside down in a town where the juiciest thing to happen is the opening of a Super Target.
“Scene Of Dreams Bar And Grill Nola,” by James Marlow. Jake Ponte has two things on his mind: selling his bar and writing a play. But he’s stuck on page seven, and he’s the only one willing to let the bar go. Things get worse when his ex-wife and formerly drug-addicted brother show up and need money.
“Summer On Fire,” by Mike Bencivenga. Maxie and Gwynn’s ladies-only, romantic Labor Day weekend on Fire Island gets thrown off course when their right-wing rental landlord takes issue with the contract. Booze, fame and pride collide in this wild comedy.
Prospective directors filled out essay applications; ATC picked four – Polly Adkins, Peter Smeal, Vito Abate, Matt Cosper – and pulled titles from a hat to determine assignments. The process is meant to be educational for all, so ATC gave each director a mentor and will import a dramaturge from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center to advise the four playwrights.
A new type of feedback
You and I can advise, too – within certain bounds.
“We’re going to manage the talkbacks according to Liz Lerman’s guide,” says Decker. (She created a format many arts organizations have used over the last 20 years to nurture talent.)
“The first section is affirmation, where you talk about what you like, to encourage the playwrights. Then the playwrights have a few minutes to ask the audience questions about the characters and settings.
“Then the audience gets to ask questions of the playwrights, which they are not allowed to answer. The last five minutes end in a general discussion. We want people to get the playwrights’ brains going but not put them on the defensive.”