Yes, you can get your play read and even staged in North Texas. There are new play festivals and contests galore in the area – helping local writers learn, get better, get noticed. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks, where do the plays — and the playwrights — go then?
In the comedy, Lather, Rinse, Repeat, playwright Antay Bilgutay puts a middle-aged gay man named Drew through a series of speed dates. It’s like a Saturday Night Live sketch about personal ads and the gay dating scene. Each time a date goes horribly wrong, Drew hits a loud buzzer and then he’s back to re-working his personal ad to prevent the next disaster. On one match-up, Drew (Shawn Strawbridge) meets a handsome fellow. But the young man says his previous, dying lover made him swear never to be with another man.
A long pause.
“Sooo … about this promise,” Drew says. “How much latitude do we have here? Can we — make out a little bit?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Lather, Rinse, Repeat is onstage for the 13th annual New Play Competition at TeCo Theatricals in Oak Cliff. Six finalists are vying for a thousand-dollar prize decided by audience votes. Lather, Rinse, Repeat is the last entry this evening; the final tally won’t happen until the competition finishes on March 22. There’s a ‘literary prize’ awarded as well — a ticket to anywhere Southwest Airlines flies — with the winner chosen by the panel of judges that selected the six finalists from the thirty scripts initially submitted to TeCo.
But despite the evening’s whole American Idol voting set-up and despite the cheering bias of audience members who clearly are friends and relatives of the playwrights, the New Play Competition isn’t exactly a cutthroat contest. Quite the opposite.
“Competition is in the name,” says Buster Spiller, one of the six finalists, “but for me it has never been about the thousand-dollar prize. For me, if I didn’t have this competition, there would be no showcase for my writing.”
Over the years, many of the playwrights have been repeat contestants and winners. Some have even acted in or directed their competitors’ plays. Antay Bilgutay, the author of Lather, Rinse, Repeat, says “We’ve kind of become a community. We support each other. We’re very much a nurturing community of artists.”
In fact, in North Texas, there’s practically a new play showcase like this every other month. In January, Stage West held its annual new play readings. In May, Kitchen Dog Theatre will present its New Works Festival. In September, TeCo will host its second annual PlayPride LGBT Theater Festival. Amphibian Productions does staged readings of new works; after a decade lying dormant, even Soul Rep came back last year with its own new play festival
And this week, WaterTower Theatre opens perhaps the most elaborate, the most involved of the lot: the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. The Loop is like compressing all of off-Broadway into a week and a half: The Addison company turns just about every flat open space it has into a performance stage, sometimes for as often as nine shows a day: cabaret acts, puppet shows, improv comedy, dance companies – and, yes, new works by local writers.
New works like The Spark by Kelsey Ervi, an artistic and marketing associate for WaterTower. Ervi had a play, Waking Up, debut at the festival two years ago before she began working there. This time, she’s directing as well, plus co-producing the festival. The Spark is something of a departure from Waking Up‘s 11-member cast and its multiple vignettes about different couples working out their relationships in a bedroom. Here, a father sparks his young daughter’s imagination with bedtime stories — and we see them played out as shadow puppetry (by Kyle Igneczi).
“Where should we go tonight?” he asks. And we see her flying above the clouds in a balloon. Somewhere new, she says eagerly. And exciting! And scary!
“Well, not too scary.”
Festivals have traditionally been low-cost experimental labs like this: They allow writers to learn their craft in front of audiences. Sometimes, that’s the only way a dramatist can discover if she’s just talking to herself.
But with all these festivals and contests giving local playwrights that chance, are any of the writers actually getting somewhere? Does anyone graduate beyond the festival circuit? Dramatists used to complain about their plays getting ‘workshopped’ to death — with theaters never staging full premieres, only providing ‘input’ and ‘development.’ Now it can look like festivals provide a similar function: help without commitment. All trial run and no finish line.
Yet the Out of the Loop festival “has actually produced a number of plays that have gone on to new life,” says Ervi. “So the hope is that it will serve as an incubator, and then the hope is that [the play] will launch elsewhere.”
There’s proof it can work. Ervi cites Thomas Ward’s comedy International Falls, which debuted at Out of the Loop three years ago. It’s currently on at Stage West. Other people point to Jonathan Norton. The young writer entered Teco Theatrical’s New Play Competition several times. Since then, he’s had plays produced by the African-American Rep and at the City Performance Hall. He was a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Now, Norton’s newest drama, Mississippi Goddamn, is onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Even so, Norton hasn’t had a drama produced on the main stage of a major resident theater. And even if he did, his success might not go any farther than that single production. With all of the ferment among North Texas’ smaller companies and their willingness to try new things, with all of these festivals and readings, “our biggest challenge here,” Norton says, ” is not necessarily making the work happen. It’s pushing the work beyond Dallas.”
This is true even for those local playwrights — like Matthew Posey of the Ochre House or Steven Walters of Second Thought Theatre — who’ve followed the tried-and-true solution for a playwright-without-a-premiere. They’ve skipped the festivals. They formed their own theater companies. Yet their works have mostly remained Dallas-only affairs.
Ervi agrees festivals can do only so much. And this is not an issue just in North Texas. Resident theaters remain a localized, not a national medium. Only commercial Broadway tours involve interstate commerce. So individual theater companies tend to be isolated by region, by communities. That’s who they serve. They’re also limited by their mission, their focus, their means.
“It’s easy to submit to festivals,” Ervi says. “That’s always what you’re looking for as an emerging playwright. It’s hard to get someone to take notice of you at a large regional theater company, one that’s reading scripts daily.”
In this process of page-to-stage, Theatre Three has taken on an unusual role locally: It’s become a kind of second stage-booster once a new play has had an initial production. It imported the musical On the Eve, after the show’s acclaimed debut at the Magnolia Theatre in Fair Park. It gave Andrew Harris’ The Lady Revealed a two-performance run once the drama about Shakespeare’s mysterious mistress premiered at UNT. More of that kind of follow-up — the next step past the festival or workshop — would help forge the kind of interactions and exchanges needed to give any play a real ‘after-life.’ This is akin to what Kitchen Dog has been doing with the National New Play Network. The NNPN gives plays “rolling premieres” among several theaters around the country. In essence, they’re mini-tours or just very long showcases.
Ultimately, Ervi say, it’s still true what they say about theater: Personal connections matter. It’s also true, she adds, what happens after a festival is still up to area theater companies. Will they make significant bets on local playwrights — and produce their work?