Austin Theatres Harvest New Dramas Bumper Crop of Plays

by Robert Faires

A play is not Athena. It does not spring full-grown from the brow of its creator as the Greek goddess of wisdom did from the head of Zeus. No, when a play emerges from the cranium of its author, it is more likely to creep, to come forth slowly, and only after much urging. Coaxing it out can be a lengthy process, and when the piece does appear, it is rarely in the form audiences will see when it's staged. The first version is frequently a different length, with different shadings, shapeless in places. The writer must continue to work the thing, to look over it and make changes which will develop its form and emotional weight. In this regard, a play is like a crop, something to be tended and nurtured and pruned, in order to bring it to where it bears ripened fruit, in this case, a satisfying dramatic experience for an audience. Playwrights hardly ever do this kind of theatrical gardening all by themselves. Given the nature of theatre, it goes against the grain. The art is about collaboration; it draws power from the blending of contributions by the playwright, the performers, the designers, the director, the technicians, the support staff, and just about anyone who wanders through a rehearsal. All these individuals can aid in the development of a new script, can help it grow, through comments and questions about the characters, actions, information that is or isn't present, and what it all means.

It is possible for theatre artists to develop plays without contributions from other parties, but even the artist who's able to write the piece, rewrite it, design it for production, direct it, and perform it alone must acknowledge one external influence in developing a script: the audience. To belabor the metaphor a bit more, audiences are the sunshine and rain that keep the crop growing. Their reactions -- the laughter, the sighs, the silences, the puzzled expressions -- determine when the play is connecting, when it is realizing its potential. A good laugh can tell the playwright that the line which prompted it is ripe, that the tending of it is complete. Until that kind of reaction comes from an audience, a writer may never be sure how far along his or her play is.

For the playwright who chooses to accept help in the garden, to accept assistance in developing a script to its full potential, there are programs which can provide feedback, from both other artists in workshop situations and audiences in public readings. Austin is blessed with a number of such programs. They address the needs of the playwright differently, sometimes helping steer the play's growth only at specific points in the development process, but they all exist to help the play grow in a positive and meaningful way.

Play Ground Zero exposes the new work to an audience when it's still a green shoot. The program was created by Colin Swanson and Nina LeNoir to give playwrights who have only completed a first draft of a new work -- or maybe not even that much -- the opportunity to hear their words hit the air. "What we're about is being a catalyst for the final writing phase of the play," says Swanson. A work is given to a director who studies the script, actors are gathered, and the play is rehearsed for 8-10 hours, then a public reading is held, with a discussion afterward in which the audience may share their impressions with the playwright. Play Ground Zero has produced 13 readings to date; the next one will be Sunday, December 10, 7pm, when The Last Best Hope, by Ann Ciccolella, will be read in full. (Part of this romantic thriller was read by Play Ground Zero in May.) The reading features Babs George and Thomas Chamberlain and will take place at Hyde Park Theatre.

Imagewrighters gives the play a point of exposure when it is further along in the process. The Capitol City Playhouse program, headed by the theatre's Associate Artistic Director, Emily Cicchini, takes works which have been through several drafts and are nearing readiness for full-scale productions and provides an opportunity for public presentation. Unlike Play Ground Zero, which has a purely local focus, Imagewrighters works with dramatists both inside and outside the city. The format of presentation is similar: a script is rehearsed by a director and a team of actors, then read for the public, with a discussion of the play following. The next Imagewrighters program will be Saturday, December 16, 3pm, when Diner, a rock musical by Mike Williams and Emily Cicchini, will be read. The reading will be held at Capitol City Playhouse.

Remembrance Through the Performing Arts (RTPA) sponsors the most extensive play development program in town, nurturing scripts from the first through the final drafts, with multiple opportunities for feedback, including in-progress productions that enable the writer to see the work performed before an audience and get responses from them one week, then rework the script and have the changes incorporated into the production for the following week's performances. According to the company's Artistic Director Rosalyn Rosen, plays which are developed by RTPA typically go through eight to 10 drafts, though some, such as the most recent project, Rebel Yells, by Steve Warren, may go through as many as 18. The goal, says Rosen, is to get the script to the point at which it is ready for full production anywhere in the country. The next in-progress production for Remembrance Through the Performing Arts is sceduled for next fall. The winter and spring will be devoted to selecting plays to be developed in the coming year.

The Live Oak Theatre Harvest Festival of New American Plays also focuses on new works in the latter stages of their development, but its format is unique among local programs. As the name implies, this is development in the context of a celebration. Rather than spreading its work with several new scripts over a period of months as other Austin programs do, Live Oak concentrates its development activities on a single week, with all of the new works being rehearsed in a few days and read over one weekend. "You have to spend a lot of time on the human aspect of the event," says Live Oak's Director of New Play Development Michael Hankin. "That's why we call it a festival. We try to create the event of theatre first." In addition to the readings, the festival includes receptions, a roundtable discussion of the featured plays, and the presentation of three awards: the Best New American Play Award, for the most outstanding work among the festival submissions (given this year to The Housewives of Manheim, by Alan Brody); the Larry L. King Outstanding Texas Playwright Award, for a writer living in Texas who has established a body of work of note (given this year to the author of Among Thistles, Clay Nichols); and the Live Oak Theatre Scholarship in New Play Development for a masters student in playwriting at the University of Texas (given this year to Lisabeth Sewell).

The Harvest Festival solicits submissions from across the country. This year, more than 300 scripts were screened by Hankin and Live Oak's Literary Manager Tom Byrne. The pair winnowed the field to a dozen scripts, which they passed to Producing Artistic Director Don Toner and Harvest Festival Producer Mari Marchbanks. The four settled on the final lineup, with Toner making the final call. Five scripts were chosen for presentation: three full-length plays and two one-acts. Each play is being rehearsed for 8-12 hours before their public readings this coming weekend. "The goal is to get the play on its feet and get it working, to get it to where it is a play that can be experienced and not just heard." In seeing their plays move as well as talk, says Hankin, "the playwrights can learn more about them." That is the true starting point for the theatre's relationship with the playwrights, in Hankin's view. The playwrights see what Live Oak can do with their work, and a foundation of trust is laid. Then theatre and writer can discuss the possibility of further development and possible production. That was the path for Carter Lewis's script An Asian Jockey in Their Midst, which won the Harvest Festival's Best New American Play Award in 1993 and was given a full stage production in the 1994 festival.

Of this year's plays, Hankin notes that "there are some very strong similarities. There seems to be a real trend toward people talking things out. There is a very strong call from these playwrights to grasp our humanity amidst a lot of pressure to change. They are all naturalistic, all what you would call "the well-made play." I see a challenge in these writers to dig in morally and accept responsibility. It's a very morally and socially conservative human viewpoint. To me, there's a very simple, straightforward message in each. But there's no lecturing, it's all experientially delivered." (See sidebar for schedule.)

The Harvest Festival and all of the new play programs share an interest in developing plays to their full potential. They also share a strong desire to have audiences experience these plays and help them develop. That's why all make it easy for you to take part. All of them are free. They're out there. They need you. Help grow a play. n

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