New Play Festival Gives Writers What They Need to Succeed

by Jean Schiffman

With carefully considered support, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival helps writers move their work through the development phase.

Bay Area Playwrights Festival artistic director Amy Mueller recently found herself re-evaluating how to structure the post-show “talkback” with the audience that traditionally follows each staged reading during the annual summer event. What kind of input works best for the playwright? she wondered. Carefully organized, moderated discussions? Casual late-evening chats at a nearby pub? Written comments from the theater-goers?

This high-profile new-play festival is the country’s oldest; it was established in 1976 by director Robert Woodruff with Sam Shepard among its first cohort of writers. But the organizers, including the participating dramaturgs and directors, continue to look for new ways to best serve the playwrights who bring their work here during the vulnerable development phase.

By now, though, Mueller and associates at the Festival’s parent nonprofit, the Playwrights Foundation, know what writers need and over the years have shaped Festival procedures to meet those needs: The seven playwrights, selected from among about 500 submissions nationwide, are each assigned a team: a dramaturg and a director. The two-week process begins with a two-and-a-half-day retreat in a secluded location for the assembled teams. The retreat is followed by about four rehearsals with actors, then two public staged readings apiece of each play, with time in between for playwrights to rewrite and actors to re-rehearse.

This year, the public staged reading component of the growing Festival has moved downtown to the heart of the theater district.

Since her tenure began 15 years ago, Mueller has been matching up each playwright with a locally based team, figuring out who would comprise what she calls a “natural fit” to help the playwright take the play to its next level. “Amy’s very good about putting together sometimes surprising teams, but teams that from her perspective will be a great match creatively and collaboratively,” observes dramaturg Jayne Wenger, who, along with director Rebecca Novick, is on playwright Christine Evans’ team this year.

Initially the retreat begins with the playwrights reading their own play aloud to the group—an essential component that often intimidates playwrights. But Wenger says that team members can tell what the playwright needs just by the way they read their own material, and that it’s a short-cut that answers a lot of questions.

“I’m not an actor—I’m afraid I’ll bore people,” confesses Festival newcomer Tearrance Chisholm, who is pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is one of three emerging playwrights on this year’s roster (the Festival always saves a slot for at least one graduate student or emerging playwright); his play, “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” concerns a relationship between two teenage boys from different worlds locked in a holding cell together—one a “book-smart prep schooler,” the other from the projects and wise beyond his years. Reading Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and realizing that such an awakening nowadays would be racial, not sexual, inspired Chisholm. “Fascinating and wonderful and devastating,” says Mueller, “full of dark humor; also a tragedy.” Chisholm describes the writing style as “hip hop dramaturgy”: “It’s repetitive, it has a chorus,” he explains. “I know what I’m doing, but I’m not sure what the effect is. That’s one of the things I want to think about in San Francisco—how that repetition works, basically.”

Most years, the chosen plays have already had a reading or two elsewhere, so playwrights arrive here with some idea of what needs to happen next. San Francisco writer Lauren Gunderson (“I and You,” “Silent Sky” and more), one of two locals among this year’s seven participants (the Festival always gives two slots to local residents), expects to play with the ending of “The Revolutionists,” a metatheatrical, feminist comedy that’s also serious-minded, about four real-life women during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror: a playwright, an assassin (Charlotte Corday, who murdered Jean-Paul Marat), Marie Antoinette and a Haitian rebel. “It’s a strange play; it keeps surprising me, changing the more I learn about history and see it onstage,” says Gunderson, who has been working on it for three years and has already had a reading in Portland, Oregon, at Catholic University and in the Playwrights Foundation’s “Rough Reading” series. “So it’s perfect for this developmental process.”

The other local playwright, Geetha Reddy, a veteran of the Festival, is looking into the future rather than the past. In her three-character “On a Wonderverse,” a physicist, despairing when a male colleague wins a Nobel Prize, makes an amazing discovery: a brand-new and expanding universe, in which she herself is suddenly assigned the role of the destructive Hindu god Shiva. The play was commissioned by the Playwrights Foundation and Crowded Fire about a year ago, and Reddy’s dramaturg, Laura Brueckner, has read every version of it since then (and, as resident dramaturg for Crowded Fire as well, was involved with discussions about it even before Reddy wrote it). “Like a lot of good science plays, it’s not about science but about the spirit of discovery,” says Brueckner. Of her own role, she adds, “I’m most useful as a sounding board. I tend to focus on a few important questions, mostly Geetha’s. It’s mostly about listening to the play and all the iterations, listening for subtle shifts to see if we’re getting closer to what we as a team have developed.” They’re also curious to see how audiences react to a female main character who’s not all “sweetness and light”; they’ll probably ask the audience, “What is your emotional attachment to this character?”

For Australian-born, Washington, D.C. resident Christine Evans, developing “Slow Falling Bird” at the Festival in 2003 was important; there she met director Novick, who later world premiered it at Crowded Fire; their relationship continued, and this year Novick is directing Evans’ Festival entry, “Galilee.” (Within the past 14 years, says Mueller, 80 percent or more of the plays developed at the Festival have gone on to mainstage productions around the country, many in multiple productions, and sometimes directly from the Festival itself.) In “Galilee,” a marine biology student can’t decide what direction to take her career; the play is set in a small Australian fishing village in which economic and environmental forces are in conflict: rapacious mining is threatening Australia’s 430-million-year-old Great Barrier Reef. Evans looks forward to reading the play aloud for her colleagues in her own Australian accent: “People can hear that voice in a way that Americans wouldn’t get from the page.” She adds, “I might rewrite the whole thing! Anything could happen! That’s exciting and terrifying.” Says Novick, “Christine has this outsider-insider perspective on language, on relationships—a different sensibility.”

For Wenger, each relationship she has with a playwright is different, geared toward what the playwright wants and what stage the play is in. She’d worked previously with Evans on an early version of her play “Trojan Barbie,” and notes that Evans is an experienced playwright who is very open to the input of a dramaturg. “This play is more realistic, which is interesting to me,” she says. Most new plays she works on are non-realistic.

Mueller says that aside from Evans’ play, this year’s crop of playwrights are experimenting with form and tend to have a few fully fleshed out characters plus others that are “caricatures by design,” representing an archetype, which functions to highlight the main characters’ conflicts. “I think that’s a real 21st-century modality,” she says, “form or structure over the intimacy of relationships. It’s almost filmic; you’re focusing on the journey of [just] a couple of characters. I found it fascinating—some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time, unabashedly working with form in order to deliver content.”

Kara Lee Corthron’s gritty “Welcome to Fear City” is set in the South Bronx during a heat wave; Sam Lahne’s “#julys” is a digital-age suspense farce; and Brendan Pelsue’s “Read To Me” is about a sick child and his spirit guides.

The combination of group retreat with non-judgmental colleagues (including the scary prospect of reading your own play to your peers), a carefully chosen director-dramaturg team, professional actors, audience feedback in one form or another, built-in time for rewrites before a second staged reading—it all makes this Festival especially rigorous for writers. But it’s just what they need.

July 17 → 26

Bay Area Playwrights Festival

Tides Theatre

533 Sutter St., San Francisco