Anyone connected with theater will tell you that with any show, it all starts with the writing. That places an especially high premium on organizations dedicated to encouraging existing and new playwrights by fostering and workshopping their plays.
The OC-Centric New Play Festival, now in its ninth year, aims to showcase the talents of seasoned playwrights as well as those at the start of their careers.
This year’s festival, being unveiled over two consecutive weekends at Chapman University, is focusing on one-act plays. The theme of “Uncommon Stories, Uncommonly Fine Plays” is being represented by a trio of original plays: “Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies” by Joni Ravenna, Ben Susskind’s “Still Moving,” and Lydia Oxenham’s “Thump in the Night.”
The all-new “Moving” and “Thump” are previously unproduced, while “Beethoven” originated in 2009 and received two Los Angeles productions in 2011. The show, however, has never been produced locally, which makes this an Orange County premiere.
All three plays will be staged at every performance, giving patrons a chance to sample variety over a shorter span of time than that demanded by full-length plays that run upwards of two hours apiece and full-scale musicals that can top out at more than three hours.
OC-Centric co-producer Eric Eberwein said this was the first of the festivals since the first, in 2011, comprised entirely of one-acts. “Typically, we have produced one to two full-lengths and two to three one-acts each year,” he said. “We call for both full-lengths and one-acts annually, and this year we chose to produce all one-acts because we felt that the best submissions this year were the shorter plays.”
Eberwein said the “uncommon” handle emerged from the fact that “these three plays tell the kind of stories that we feel are seldom seen on local stages.” All three, he said, “tell stories you don’t typically see in local theater, stories that need to be told.”
“‘Still Moving,’” he said, “is about two young men of uncommon circumstances and character who are about to become college roommates; one is disabled and uses a wheelchair, and the other has agreed to help him with daily life.”
“Thump in the Night” “is a comedy about a strange occurrence in an apartment building that comically fosters community out of fear of the unknown.”
“Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies” concerns the true story of a popular African-American professor who was fired by University of Arkansas after a white student complained about his frequent use of profanity in class and his decision to show his class a graphic picture of a lynching.
Playwright Ravenna said the professor approached Orange County Playwrights Alliance (OCPA) in 2009 looking to hire someone to write a one-man play about his life that he could then perform. Ravenna “took on the project, we did hours of taped conversations,” and in 2011, one of her producer/director friends had the script produced at L.A.-based theaters The MET and The Odyssey before taking it on tour.
Though a television writer by trade, Ravenna has written 14 plays. Of these, two have been unveiled by OC-Centric: “Sex, Love and Premature Evacuation” in 2011 and “Corrupt Impressions” in 2015. Allison Bergman directs OC-Centric’s production of “Beethoven and the Misfortune Cookies,” which stars Rayshawn C. Chism in a solo performance as the beleaguered educator.
All three scripts tread unusual ground. The focal character of “Still Moving” is a shy, quadriplegic college freshman who leaves home for the first time to attend an out-of-state school. His roommate is tasked with caring for, feeding, bathing and dressing him.
The only comedy on hand, “Thump” is as off the beaten path as the rest of the program as it dissects the budding relationships of neighbors who meet while one investigates the middle-of-the-night death of the elderly man who lives upstairs.
The play’s director, Katie Chidester, lauds OC-Centric for providing “full productions of the pieces, with all of the technical elements” – not the case with other local playwriting organizations. “Each one-act is a collaboration not just between writer and director, but actors, designers and finally audiences. That sort of support structure for an unknown play is so rare but essential to fully realize the potential of each of these pieces.”
The Origins of OC-Centric
The festival was founded in 2011 by Tamiko Washington, a tenured Chapman University professor of theater and OC-Centric’s artistic director and producer. At the festival’s inception, she asked Eberwein, director of the Orange County Playwrights Alliance, to be the associate artistic director of the festival and to co-produce it with her, a working relationship that exists to date.
The first year of the festival featured plays from members of OCPA. From the second year on, the plays have been selected from regional and national calls for scripts in an open submission process. This year’s three plays were selected from several dozen submissions sent to OC-Centric from all over the country.
The festival is sponsored by Chapman University’s College of Performing Arts, with which it has an official professional association.
While numerous theater companies large and small make it a point to encourage, foster and workshop the development of new plays, it’s common practice among the smaller organizations to offer the new scripts in the form of staged readings – but not OC-Centric.
“Full productions of new works… as opposed to staged readings – that’s our difference,” Eberwein said of the company. That makes it “the only (local) theater festival fully producing new works” of plays.
A second point of distinction is that the plays are written by “O.C.-rooted playwrights – dramatists who live in or hail from Orange County.” In fact, that’s an eligibility requirement for script submission to the festival.
Eberwein also points out the festival’s broader Southern California pedigree in that the bulk of the actors and directors involved “have worked in theaters in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange County and the Inland Empire.”
O.C. is a Community Devoted to Fostering New Plays
The area’s two most prominent playwriting groups are Orange County Playwrights Alliance (OCPA), a play development organization co-created by O.C. playwrights Eleanor Brook and Curt Webster in 1995, and New Voices Playwrights Theatre, formed in 1997. Both produce staged readings of new plays on an ongoing basis.
More recently, director Chidester has her own play-producing company, Project LaFemme, that produces an Orange County-based a new work festival, Page to Stage, in collaboration with the Curtis Theatre in Brea. Its specific focus is female playwrights.
Eberwein pointed out that two small local theater companies, Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble and The Wayward Artist, routinely program all-new, unproduced works at Grand Central Art Center in downtown Santa Ana’s Artists Village. Additionally, Orange County is rife with “various storefront ensembles” that also make it a point to invite the submission of new, unproduced plays which, when selected, are showcased as part of each of those companies’ regular seasons.
Chidester states that “as a community, we need to be committed to supporting and nurturing the stories that define and shape our culture. Orange County has a unique voice and a wealth of talent, so why not invest in that?”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].