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American Stage’s New Play Festival: A portal into the creative process

Bill DeYoung



Joran Mann and Joe Joseph appeared in "Strait of Gibraltar," a festival submission that went all the way to the mainstage in 2018. Photo: American Stage.

Nearly 500 new and unproduced theatrical works were submitted to American Stage for the 2020 New Play Festival, in the form of synopses and 10-page samples. Aspiring playwrights countrywide made bids to be part of “21st Century Voices,” four days of staged readings, workshops and discussions.

A committee of 30 area residents – not all of them theater professionals – joined American Stage  producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte in the whittling-down process. Between 40 and 50 full scripts were then reviewed. “Sometimes they agree very much about a particular piece, and then there’s an interesting energy,” Gularte says. “But exciting conversations also happening when there are differing opinions around a piece of work.”

So what are they looking for?

“Always, it starts with ‘Are the characters compelling?’” Gularte explains. “You almost put what happens in the story aside for a bit – are you drawn to these characters? Because usually if you’re drawn to the characters, there’s a rich world that has been created there that resonates. And if the characters are really striking a chord, the dialogue has been really, effectively crafted.

“Shortly after that, of course, is ‘does this have a resonance to right now? Does this feel like a story that means something to our world today?’”

“21st Century Voices,” the fourth annual American Stage New Play Festival, will take place Feb. 27-March 1. The top five plays will be featured in staged readings over the weekend.

It is, understandably, good for the playwrights to have their work not only evaluated and discussed by outsiders, but to watch it go through the process of production, with all its creative back-and-forth. And to be there when an audience hears it for the first time.

American Stage is a beneficiary as well – Andrea Lepcio’s romantic thriller Strait of Gibraltar, a Mainstage production in the 2017-18 season, was submitted during the New Play Festival.

And the theater’s next production, Natalie Symons’ “human comedy” The People Downstairs, arrived via the same channel.

Gularte believes this event brings something special to the community table, too.

“It brings the community in on the process, in a way that I think is core to the role of a regional professional theater,” she says. “The work of creating a play or a musical is a highly, highly collaborative process. The experience of performing it is highly collaborative, too, and we rely on that live audience to be a component of it.

“Our community is truly on the trajectory of not only being an arts community, but being an arts community in an intentional way – in a way that really asks ‘What does that means?’ A new play festival like this allows the community to understand the art form of live theater at another level, and also to participate in the future of the art form.

“So these plays will go on to have a life beyond this festival.”

Festival Schedule

Thursday, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. Staged reading of Strange Courtesies by L. Peter Callender. The playwright is the director of Skeleton Crew, the current American Stage production. His Strange Courtesies was submitted under a pseudonym.

“I thought it was really strong,” Gularte explains, “and I was curious to see what would happen if people didn’t know it was Peter’s play. I removed myself as one of the initial evaluators of the play, as obviously I knew too much! And the play rose to the top.”

Friday, Feb. 28. 6:30 p.m. – Meet the Playwrights (Panel Discussion). The festival’s playwrights come together in conversation about the art and the business of writing and developing new plays.

8 p.m. – Staged reading of The Impossible Escape of Don Misterioso by Hal Borden.

Saturday, Feb. 29. 1 p.m. – 21CV Write ON! Student Playwright Showcase; selected student plays from American Stage’s Write On! programs will be performed as staged readings by professional actors.

3 p.m. – Staged reading of You Too? by Taylor Leigh Lamb.

8 p.m. – Staged reading of MLM is For Murder (Or, Your Side Hustle is Killing Us) by John Bavoso.

Sunday, March 1.  12 p.m. – Conversation on the National New Play Front (Panel Discussion). Stephanie Gularte interviews National New Play Network Executive Director Nan Barnett in a discussion about the national trends in new play development.

“This type of festival is so important,” Barnett said in a prepared statement. “Playwrights are given an opportunity to delve into a work with a professional team, actors and directors get to dive into something new and audiences have a chance to be a part of the creative process. Everyone helps make the play, which makes everyone an artist. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend!”

1 p.m. – Behind the Scenes for the world premiere of The People Downstairs (opening March 11).

3 p.m. – Staged reading of Predictor by Jennifer Blackmer.

Full play descriptions, playwright bios and tickets are here.




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