Theaters shine a light on works in progress
When New York playwright Nick Gandiello attended the 2017 world premiere of The Blameless, he had an excellent feel for how his play would connect with The Old Globe audience. He had, in fact, refined the script after a stage reading in the Balboa Park theater’s 2016 New Voices Festival. “There’s a certain moment in the play that has a lot to do with the entering characters. It didn’t seem they all were getting their say, so I made changes to give them more space and let the moment develop,” he says. “Responses from the audience and The Old Globe staff were very clarifying for me in terms of how the play functions as a whole.”
Held in January, The Old Globe’s four-year-old event (now the Powers New Voices Festival) features free readings of four new plays over the course of a weekend. The theater also hosts Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers, which showcases winners of the California Young Playwrights Contest open to those under the age of 19. The entrants requesting feedback receive critiques of their scripts, and winners also are assigned dramaturgs to help them further develop their plays. Last December, San Diego Repertory Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, Herbert Siguenza, presented a partial reading of his play in progress, Beachtown. At the end of January, he offered full readings of the work, which is planned for full production in 2018. “I get a lot out of those readings. How the audience responds really guides me as a writer,” he says, adding that he also benefits from notes taken during the readings by his dramaturgs (members of the theater staff, including Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse). “I did a rewrite, emphasizing stuff that worked and cutting what didn’t. Now it flows much better.” Wanting to help playwrights not only get their work read but also produced, Scripps Ranch Theater board member Robert May founded the Out on a Limb festival. Now in its sixth year, with to-be-determined dates in July, the program begins in November with submissions of concepts for one-act plays that have something to do with San Diego. “We usually get around 25 submissions, which we whittle down to eight,” Robert says, referring to himself and theater professionals he trusts. Those eight playwrights must submit first drafts by mid-February. Robert and his team work with the playwrights to hone their scripts based on feedback from readings. Changes based on feedback can be as subtle as changing one word or as dramatic as changing a character. “I’ve been in a situation where, once someone’s play is read and discussed, they say, ‘Wow. This other character came out much stronger than I wrote her. The play is more about her than this guy.’ The really exciting part for us about working with new plays is the discovery of what the playwright is really trying to tell in their story.” Production-ready scripts are due the first of May.
“The playwrights are more than welcome to attend rehearsals,” Robert says. “In fact, the actors and director find it helpful to have them there.” Scripps Ranch Theater also has a peer-group program for helping playwrights get full-length plays produced. Now in its second year, New Works Studio brings together five playwrights who meet once every two weeks for nine months and read their works in progress to each other — or occasionally have actors read sections.“We put out a call for 10-page submissions from play-wrights throughout Southern California,” Robert says. “From those, we have face-to-face interviews, looking for a chemistry of personalities. We want people who are good at listening and giving feedback and being available for their fellow playwrights. “We have a dramaturg who is part of that group whose job is to be an advocate for each playwright and make sure they have a clear grasp of what the feedback means for them when they go back to write,” he adds. Because Scripps Ranch can’t produce everything written under the New Works Studio, Robert invites artistic directors from other theaters to listen to final readings. La Jolla Playhouse reached year five of its DNA New Work Series in December. There are generally four to six readings per workshop and then readings open to the public. Some plays have ultimately made it into a future season of full productions. The theater’s other development initiative, Page-to-Stage, involves works (usually one per season) that are fully staged but still in progress, with changes made in response to audience reaction and feedback. Marking its 69th year this month, Scripteasers invites San Diego-area writers to submit original, unproduced stage plays and screenplays. Most readings, held at a private home, comprise two or three one-act plays. At the conclusion of the reading, a moderator leads a discussion with members of the audience on the success or failure of various aspects of the script and how close the work is to being ready for production. Playwrights also can mingle with audience members during a post-reading social hour. “We have a loyal following and usually have 25 to 40 people at each reading,” says Susan Benninghoff, president. “People participate however they want: as writers, as actors and mostly as audience members.” This year, Scripteasers holds its 12th annual Script Tease of Short Plays competition, with submissions due July 1. “I assemble a mix of writers and actors as judges. We have a person who receives the plays and takes off the cover page so we don’t know who wrote them,” Susan says. The top three plays are presented on an evening in October; honorable mentions are grouped together for subsequent readings. Diversionary Theatre hosts WordPlay Tuesdays in partnership with San Diego Playwrights. Roles are assigned to volunteer actors for cold, 10-minute readings, followed by 10 minutes of feedback (playwrights may submit two specific questions for the moderator to ask the audience). This month (May 18-21), the theater debuts Spark!, a new-play festival featuring three to five staged readings and a “master class” on the playwriting process. In November, Cygnet Theatre launched its Garrett Finish Line New Play Commission, an annual program to help play-wrights with an incomplete script “get closer to the finish line of a production,” says Toni Robin, the theater’s public relations director. The weeklong process includes two public readings and forums to provide the writers with feedback. In 2018, the theater will host the world premiere of one of the first two commissioned plays: The Wind and the Breeze by New York playwright Nathan Alan Davis. Unknown works, especially presented in readings without costumes and sets, don’t generate a whopping demand for tickets. But that’s not the point. “Nurturing the creative process is a passion project for most theaters,” Toni says. “It’s what we all believe in: inspiring new work.”