Eighteen wounds and one crushing heartbreak.
That was 2020 by-the-numbers for Andy Knight, South Coast Repertory’s literary manager. The 18 is the combined number of canceled productions in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons at SCR, including six world premieres.
The heartbreak was the Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF), SCR’s annual showcase of new plays and a spring staple since 1998. Five staged readings and two full productions were lost with last year’s festival, which was the first in which Knight was co-director.
Every scrapped production was painful, from Tom Stoppard’s scheduled season-ending play last May, “Arcadia,” to what would have been the season-ender this May (and which may still find its way onto an SCR stage later this year or next): the world premiere of a musical adaptation of a play that premiered at SCR in 1988, Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss.”
But just as new play development has a special place in SCR’s mission, the PPF has a special place in the artistic part of SCR’s collective heart.
The first round of cancellations, which was the tail-end of the 2019-20 season, was “shocking,” said Knight, who has worked on the literary side of SCR since 2013 and was named literary manager in August 2019. One show was about to open and two more were in rehearsal. But when it became clear that the weekend slated for the PPF, which would been about five weeks after those cancellations, would also have to be shelved, shock turned into sadness.
“It was just very, very sad,” he said. “There is so much excitement both from SCR’s audience of new-play lovers and the (theater) industry nationwide, around the festival as well as the energy and camaraderie when everyone is gathered together on the terrace,” after the readings on Fridays and Saturdays.
But mostly, Knight felt for the playwrights. Not only would they miss out on the short, but intensive rehearsal and performance process designed to help them see and hear what worked, or needed work, in their plays, they would also “not get that opportunity to share with our audience and their peers,” he said.
Nothing can take away the disappointment of last year. But at least he won’t have to relive it, as the PPF is a part of SCR’s recently announced mini-season after a forced 13-month hiatus.
The spring/summer season includes five plays that are part of the PPF, the first of which “opens” Monday, York Walker’s play “Covenant.” (The two full productions of new plays that are also part of the PPF will not happen this year).
Also streaming this month is a new adaptation of “Red Riding Hood,” part of SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences series, which “opened” Wednesday. “Red” is not included as a part of the PPF – although director Shannon Flynn, who last worked at SCR 18 years ago, before she was an Emmy Award-winning TV director, worked as a coordinator on the very first PPF.
SCR Literary Manager Andy Knight supplies some background on the five staged readings in this year’s Pacific Playwright Festival.
“Covenant,” by York Walker; director, Tamilla Woodard; dramaturg: John Glore
Streaming April 26-May 2
Knight describes the play that kicks off the festival as a “a folk drama that plays with the horror genre.” It is set in a small town in Georgia in 1936 and while there are allusions to the story of a certain blues musician who made a deal at the crossroads, Walker’s story is about a different musician, Johnny “Honeycomb” James, whose sudden reappearance turns his family’s life upside down.
“Coleman ’72” by Charlie Oh; director, David Ivers; dramaturg, Knight
Streaming May 10-May 16
This play is set in 2010 and 1972 in various locations across the U.S. In 1972, James, who works in academia, piles his wife and three kids into a Coleman camper trailer for a road trip from Wisconsin to California.
An ensemble play, a road-trip play and a memory play, Knight says the dialogue in “Coleman ‘72” “has a wonderful sense of rhythm and tempo to it.”
Thematically, it looks at family dynamics, memory, and perspective, and how the personal relates to the political (and vice versa). “There’s also a lovely examination of the fragility of democracy — both within families and within countries,” Knight says.
“Park-e Laleh” by Shayan Lofti; director, Mike Donahue; dramaturg, Knight
Streaming May 24-30
This is a two-act drama that begins in London in 2012, where a young Iranian man who has fled his country to avoid persecution for being gay is seeking asylum. But he finds that being granted a “leave to remain” in London is only the beginning of his story, as he now must reconcile with all he has left behind.
Knight says the play has “a powerful thread that meditates on the ways one is expected to perform an identity based on a variety of factors, including geography and culture. This certainly intersects with the idea of being othered, as well.”
“Clean” by Christine Quintana; director, Lisa Portes; translations by Paula Zelaya Cervantes; dramaturg, Anna Jennings
Streaming May 31-June 6
This is set in a contemporary resort in Mexico and revolves around two people. Sarah is a Canadian guest at the resort. She is there for her sister’s wedding but also wants to shake off her past so she can start forming a plan for the future. Adriana, a Mexican resort worker, is in a similar situation. And one rainy night, a brief encounter sets something in motion for both.
Told primarily through monologues, Knight says “Clean” “looks at the collision of assumptions, circumstance, privilege and culture.”
Additionally, Quintana is working on making the play fully bilingual, Knight says, “with most of Adriana’s dialogue spoken in Spanish and most of Sarah’s dialogue spoken in English.
Streaming June 21-27.
Set mostly in Hollywood during the second half of the 20th century, it’s a musical based on the 2015 documentary by Daniel Raim and tells the story of married couple Harold and Lillian Michelson, two of the film industry’s unsung heroes. Harold is a storyboard artist whose illustrations were behind some of the most famous movies of the 20th century (“Ben-Hur,” “The Birds,” “The Graduate”), and Lillian is a film researcher and librarian whose work also influenced many classic films, including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Scarface.”
Knight says the play “is a beautiful, warm musical. It’s also a memory piece and feels simultaneously intimate and expansive as it chronicles more than 60 years.”
‘Opening’ a Show Online
About those quotation marks around “opens”: Yes, it is accurate that there was a specific day when “Red” could be seen for the first time; same with “Covenant.” And since an opening, in this context, means when a movie, play, art exhibit or other show may be viewed by the public – each counts as an opening.
But theater openings are much different from most other art events. They are the first of multi-night runs. And whether three nights, four weeks or 13,000 performances, every show is different because every performance must be re-created by live humans, not a computer simulation.
But that won’t be the case with the PPF performances or “Red Riding Hood.” None will be performed with a live audience, and the production that viewers see the first day will be the same that every viewer will see.
They are streamed productions of pre-recorded videos, each edited from three nights of filmed performances in an empty theater. “Red Riding Hood” can be viewed through June 21. Each of the five PPF plays will be available for seven days, one at a time, beginning with “Covenant,” available from April 26-May 2.
The decision to film this year’s festival was made in September, even though a date hadn’t been set. But the decision came after a great deal of discussion.
“Every different form the festival could take was discussed,” Knight said. “We talked about all kinds of options, from a Zoom option to what if we moved (into the theater) late enough in the year – would that guarantee some indoor (performances) or even outdoors?”
One option that was never discussed? The PPF not returning in 2021. Although SCR artistic director David Ivers took the helm of SCR in 2019 and had only one PPF under his belt, Knight said he already knew the value of the festival and would not let it languish another year.
“After the crushing experience of canceling last year’s festival, (Ivers) was really committed to keeping it alive no matter what form it had to take during a pandemic,” Knight said. “I think that shows he understands how important the festival is, and that it is one of the pillars of SCR.”
Knight said everyone involved with the festival realizes that even a high-quality filming of a staged reading isn’t the same as experiencing one live. But while there are disadvantages, there are also advantages.
Big disadvantage? You’re not in the same room as the performers. Theater is a live, three-dimensional art form experienced in the same moment of time and space by performers and spectators. Watching a recording can’t capture that.
Biggest advantage? You’re not in the same room as the performers. You can watch it at any time, pause, rewind and unwrap the plastic around as many candies as you want.
But while the staged readings will be much different this year in terms of viewer experience, as well as logistics, there is one similarity that overrides everything else.
“At its heart, this festival is about supporting playwrights,” Knight said. “Yes, the plays are shared with audiences. But it’s really about developing these plays, of the playwright sitting in on rehearsals and hearing how the play is functioning, and talking about it with the actors and director. They learn a lot in this stage of the process.”
But will the playwrights in this year’s festival get the full PPF experience? Absolutely not when compared to past years. They won’t hear how an audience reacts, either vocally or physically. They won’t feel any kind of buzz or energy – or lack thereof – from that audience. They won’t be part of the center of attention during the collegial gathering of theater industry types in the early evening on SCR’s terrace.
A New Way to Test Out a Play
So, this year’s PPF should come with an asterisk, right?
Not according to the first playwright to go through the process. York Walker had not seen the film of his play as of Monday of this week, but he had nothing but good things to say about the week in the theater he spent with the cast, director and dramaturg.
“The live experience is best, but this has been a good temporary stand in,” he said in an email.
But he also said there are storytelling possibilities in filming with multiple cameras that a live experience can’t match.
“Editing allows us to have some new choices within the storytelling,” he said in the email. “For instance, ‘Covenant’ has several interludes/monologues where we get some insight into the inner world of each of the characters. Since we’re filming, we can highlight those moments with close-ups of the actors. It allows us to shape how the audience experiences these monologues in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a live experience.”
As far as no audience for this reading? Walker felt it, no way around that.
“The live audience is really the final character of a play,” he said. “Without them, it just feels like something is missing. On the flip side, there is a lot of work that can be done on a play before it’s ready for an audience. The actors in this process dove headfirst into this text and we discovered so much about the play … (it) was such an incredibly collaborative process and I can’t wait to get this new draft in front of an audience to hear how it plays.”
And to emphatically ring in the endorsement from the one person whose opinion is, frankly, the only one that matters right now, here’s Walker again: “This was a very special process because, for many of us, it was our first time being back in a theater. I’m so grateful to everyone at South Coast Rep for taking such good care of us and making sure we were safe in this process. After being away from it for so long, I don’t think I’ll ever take being in community with other theater artists for granted again.”
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.