Anyone involved in theater will tell you it all begins with the written word, making the development and workshopping of new plays all the more paramount.
For 22 years, South Coast Repertory has been at the forefront of this process with its annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, a three-day national showcase of new plays.
This year’s slate, which unfolds from April 26 to 28, is comprised of five staged readings plus full productions of two all-new plays enjoying their world premieres.
SCR associate artistic director John Glore, PPF’s co-director, calls the weekend “the most exciting 48 hours in our entire season.”
This year’s staged readings are: Adam Bock’s “The Canadians”; “Mask Only” by Ana Nogueira; “Unlikeable Heroine” by Melissa Ross; Chisa Hutchinson’s “Whitelisted”; and an all-new musical version of “Prelude to a Kiss” with music by Dan Messé, lyrics by Messé and Sean Hartley, and book by Craig Lucas who also wrote the original stage play which was commissioned by SCR in 1988.
With their plays, Bock, Hutchinson and Nogueira are enjoying their festival debuts, while Lucas, Nguyen, Artigue and Ross are previous participants.
The full stagings are “Poor Yella Rednecks,” Qui Nguyen’s follow-up to his previous (2015) PPF play “Vietgone,” and Kevin Artigue’s “Sheepdog.” “Rednecks” uses rap and hip-hop to relate the tale of playwright Nguyen’s parents and their courtship while starting their lives anew in the U.S., while Artigue’s script relates the story of two police officers, both partners and lovers, whose relationship is rocked to the core.
Bringing a New Show to Life
David Ivers, SCR’s newly appointed artistic director, regards “Prelude to a Kiss,” which he’s directing, as “absolutely brand new, regardless of the source material” and said he and the SCR team are approaching the concert reading of the musical adaptation as they would any other script – by examining the storytelling.
The idea to turn “Prelude to a Kiss” into a musical originated with co-lyricist Hartley, who got in touch with Lucas to propose the adaptation. At the time, Lucas was working on the musical of “Amélie” with composer Messé, so suggested bringing him in to write the music.
SCR commissioned the songs, with Lucas agreeing to write the libretto – but stayed out of the process of musicalizing the show until Messé and Hartley had written a half-dozen songs. The show was workshopped at SCR last fall. Ivers and Glore felt the show was strong enough to consider including it in this year’s PPF, and the creative team said they felt they could finish most if not all of the songs in time. At present, just one song is still incomplete but is expected to be ready by the time show goes up on April 26.
“I think the largest challenge comes in learning the material in a truncated rehearsal period,” said Ivers. “As we explore the narrative, structure and character relationships, we also must do the practical work of learning the musical notes.”
A staged reading, he said, “has a sort of pressure, but there is an inherent understanding that we are still very much in process. The team understands that and so does the creative team. In this way – even though all of us on the creative team would tell you different – it’s ‘easier’” than mounting a full staging.
An Embarrassment of Riches
Glore noted that “looking for the best, most exciting plays is far and away the most important criterion as we program the festival. We are also very mindful of aiming for diversity and equity in the festival.” Another general goal is “to achieve some balance in the overall lineup,” mixing up “styles, genres, younger as well as more established playwrights.”
How frequently has the selection process come down to having too many good choices and having to narrow down the field and/or eliminate a script that might otherwise be considered a shoo-in?
“We often find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches,” Glore said. “This year, for example, we had a bumper crop of commissioned works to choose from, which made it harder to find room for plays that came to us from other sources.”
By the same token, “sometimes a play that was a near-miss for the festival ends up getting chosen as our final NewSCRipts reading that year, or the first in the following season. We’re also happy to share information about the plays we liked but didn’t have room for with our colleagues from around the American theater.”
As far as the process of reading, screening and lining up the scripts for each year’s festival, Glore called it “relatively consistent from year to year. The literary team reads about 500-600 plays every year and every play has a shot at being considered for inclusion in PPF.”
“Some years we have more commissioned work in the mix, and some years fewer, and that can influence the decision-making process in a given year.”
Including this year’s shows, PPF has developed a total of 141 plays, many of which have gone on to become mainstays of the American theater landscape.
The festival will wrap-up with a Sunday morning panel, “Playwrights and Institutional Change,” moderated by playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil. The weekend’s featured playwrights – Artigue, Bock, Hartley, Hutchinson, Lucas, Messé, Nguyen, Nogueira and Ross – will discuss what changes in theater leadership means to writers and to the future of their work.
The panel is sure to provide fertile ground for any playwrights in attendance planning to submit their works to SCR for PPF in 2020 and beyond.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.