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American Stage gives ‘Voice’ to unproduced playwrights

Bill DeYoung



A scene from the 2022 New Play Festival. Photo: American Stage.

James Weldon Johnson’s hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” provides the title – and the mission – for American Stage’s 2023 New Play Festival, taking place this weekend (March 3-5) at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

Five unproduced plays will be presented in staged reading format, as part of the event formerly known as the 21st Century Voices New Play Festival. Explains associate artistic producer Patrick A. Jackson: “After evaluating the history and impact of that, and what was happening in the world consciousness, we wanted to really take a moment and say ‘Who are we as American Stage, and how can we support national and international new play development?’”

That was the beginning of the “re-imagining” of the festival, Jackson continues. “But more specifically, to highlight BIPOC storytellers, LGBTQIA storytellers and celebrating the variety of stories they can tell.

“I think a lot of times when we look at those groups, in an effort to uplift them we focus on their pain and suffering – but a Black or Brown person can love, and laugh, and be clumsy and come of age. And so that was really the impetus.”

Say hello to the Lift Every Voice New Play Festival.

The five plays chosen – out of more than 200 submissions – were Pueblo Revolt by Dillon Chitto, Mestiza, or Mixed by Melissa Leilani Larson, Decolonizing Your Mind with Walter Mercado by Jayne Deely, The Figs by Doug Robinson and Lati-NO! by Miguel Muñoz.

The playwrights will be in attendance as American Stage actors give their works sinew and muscle in public, for the very first time, at different venues inside the James Museum.

“One of my favorite parts of being a leader in the arts is that I get to watch audiences take in a piece together,” explains artistic director Helen R. Murray. “I get to see whether or not they’re journeying together, on whatever adventure we’ve put them on.”

The first audience, then, is part of the honing process.

Patrick A. Jackson and Helen R. Murray. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Murray, who began her tenure in the big chair at American Stage last October, played a major role in the Lift Every Voice saga. The ongoing regular season, which continues with the “park” production of Ragtime in April, was already in place when she arrived. So helping with the new-play selection process was her first exercise in actual programming (rest assured, she crafted the 2023-24 season, which will be announced next month).

Although there were some promising scripts among the 200-or-so submissions, they didn’t all adhere to the festival’s desired theme.

“There are different ways” to acquire new works, Murray says. “Whether it was an agent putting forth a writer that we should look at, or a colleague who said ‘Have you seen what so-and-so is writing right now?’ and I’ll say, have them send it to me. Had they known about our submission process, they probably would have submitted. And some of them, we’ll put into the mix.”

Said mix involves a series of readers, from American Stage staffers to bay area actors, theater people and community leaders, all of whom are asked to comment on what they’ve read. The scripts go through a rigorous approval process; the final five (plus a “pop-up” special) have therefore passed through numerous quality-control checkpoints.

As for what happens after Lift Every Voice, “There’s no guarantee that America Stage will produce,” Jackson explains. “But with Helen’s experience in play development my hope is that we can grow our new play development programming in general. If there is a production, maybe it won’t be for the mainstage. We’re very passionate about taking our stories out into the community.”

Before moving to St. Petersburg, Murray ran regional theaters in Aurora, Colorado and Fairfax, Virginia. New play development was, and is, something she is passionate about.

“This is one of my strategic plans moving forward with the company,” she says. “I want our new play engine to be much more formalized. So that when there’s something in the festival we really like, OK, you move on through these processes that you can make it to our mainstage, or out into our community. That is the end goal of this – to help it go from page to stage.”

And stages, she stresses, can be anywhere. Theater, after all, historically started around a campfire.

Which is why moving the New Play Festival to an art museum is a good start – Murray calls it “lifting the veil” of what theater is, can and should be.

“Theater’s becoming a niche art form,” she says. “I do want it to become less of an unknown to people. So if we take it out to folks, if they have an engagement with us in the community, there’s a better likelihood that they’ll enter our spaces as well.”

For details on the plays, and the performances, and to purchase tickets, click here.

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