While selecting and lining up plays for an annual new play festival might seem a relatively simple, straightforward process, it’s anything but.
South Coast Repertory is now approaching the quarter-century mark in holding its annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, and the process essentially never ends, occurring more or less on an ongoing basis throughout the year.
This year’s PPF is the first fully live iteration of the event since 2019 – the pandemic caused the 2020 festival to be canceled and the 2021 slate of plays to be presented virtually.
Asked if the format had changed in any significant way during the two years between the completion of the 2019 festival and that of last year’s, Andy Knight, SCR’s literary manager and the festival’s co-director, said, “The format is similar to how it was three years ago, with two small variables: The previous years before this year featured two full productions in addition to five staged readings; this year we have one full production and five readings.”
The readings are “A Million Tiny Pieces,” an SCR commission by Spenser Davis; “how to roll a blunt” by Naomi Lorrain; “love you long time (already)” by Katie Do; “Bite Me” by Eliana Pipes; and “avaaz” by Michael Shayan. The full production is Christine Quintana’s “Clean/Espejos,” a fully bilingual drama that was unveiled a year ago as a PPF reading.
Also included will be what Knight calls “the one special event” of this year’s PPF called Samples from The Lab, which will provide a peek at excerpts from a new musical that’s in the process of being developed.
Finding New Plays: An Ongoing, Year-Round Process
Knight elaborated on the ongoing, year-round process of searching for new plays. “We’re always reading and always looking for new plays to produce. Some of those we read have had some sort of a previous life but generally we’re looking for new, unproduced works. We’re reading year-round for that.”
2022 Pacific Playwrights Festival
When: April 8-10
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: $90 packages, single-event tickets starting at $19; $10 for Samples from The Lab; $33-$98 for “Clean/Espejos”
Information: 714-708-5500, scr.org
By Christine Quintana, Spanish translation and adaptation by Paula Zelaya Cervantes, directed by Lisa Portes
When/Where: Full production through April 10 (PPF performance Sat. night April 9), Julianne Argyros Stage
Synopsis: At a luxury resort in Cancun, the lives of two entirely dissimilar women intersect, forcing each to reexamine her life. The show is performed throughout with subtitles in English and Spanish.
“A Million Tiny Pieces”
By Spenser Davis, commissioned by SCR, directed by David Ivers
When/Where: Staged reading 1 p.m. Friday, April 8, Segerstrom Stage
Synopsis: Based on the true story of Tetris, the play covers two journalists, a worldwide legal battle and a split in the Iron Curtain.
“how to roll a blunt”
By Naomi Lorrain, directed by Colette Robert
When/Where: Staged reading 4 p.m. Friday, April 8, Segerstrom Stage
Synopsis: The subjects of Black art, love and the pursuit of excellence are explored through a tale of two young roommates in New York City.
“love you long time (already)”
By Katie Do, directed by Mei Ann Teo
When/Where: Staged reading 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 9, Segerstrom Stage
Synopsis: A Vietnamese mother and daughter grapple with their immigration to America, infidelity and first love.
By Eliana Pipes, directed by Jennifer Chang
When/Where: Staged reading 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 10, Segerstrom Stage
Synopsis: In 2004, two 16-year-olds begin meeting secretly in the storage closet, starting something that lingers with them until they meet at their school’s reunion 10 years later.
By Michael Shayan, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
When/Where: Staged reading 8 p.m. Friday, April 8, 8 p.m Saturday, April 9, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 10, Nicholas Studio
Synopsis: Members of an Iranian family interact while celebrating Nowruz – the Iranian New Year.
“Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life”
Music and lyrics by Anika and Britta Johnson, book by Nick Green, directed by Logan Vaughn
When/Where: 8 p.m. Friday, April 8, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, Samueli Theater (Segerstrom Center for the Arts)
Synopsis: The body of the deceased Dr. Silver is gone, and his devoted followers gather in a secret location to celebrate his legacy. This is a Samples from The Lab presentation, which includes excerpts from the show in its current form.
When/Where: 9 a.m. Sunday April 10; location TBA
Synopsis: A conversation with the playwrights of this year’s PPF about the process of developing new plays.
How soon after the conclusion of any PPF does planning begin for the following year? “We start thinking about the next year’s festival almost right away. The logistics begin to take shape during the summer,” Knight said. “The real effort to find plays specifically for the upcoming PPF begins in late summer and early fall of the preceding year.”
He explained that the team’s general timeline includes narrowing down options to a list of finalists by late December, selecting “the actual slate of plays internally” in January, confirming the lineup and getting directors by early February, and then in mid-February, “we announce the final slate of plays.”
The Source(s) of Some Incredible Scripts
The plays ferreted out by Knight and his colleagues come from a variety of sources. “As the literary manager, I’m always searching for plays and playwrights.” They search various websites, connect with literary agents and colleagues at other theaters, keep an eye on the latest plays in circulation, and check online play exchanges where writers can post their scripts. “So, I’m always looking in that regard.”
Also, SCR has a robust commissioning program where it pays playwrights to work on new pieces for the company.
Then there are the “sort of anomalies – things that do fall into our laps. We consider ourselves very lucky when that happens.”
What if a playwright has just written something new and wants to submit it to SCR? Knight said that although they don’t typically accept unsolicited submissions, sometimes a play finds its way into his inbox that he and others may read and evaluate.
Knight said Kim Martin-Cotten, PPF’s co-director and an associate artistic director at SCR, is as heavily involved in locating and selecting new works as he is. “The entire process of locating, reading, evaluating and selecting which plays to showcase involves really a lot of effort from me and Kim.”
For this year’s PPF, Knight said he, Martin-Cotten and others read approximately 225 plays which were narrowed down to 15 finalists. “From there we (choose) five readings and the one Samples from The Lab work, so a total of six.”
Martin-Cotten explained that they have a team of seven people who do a majority of the reading.“We are in deep conversation about this all the time. Together we’re reading, re-reading, sharing and discussing the plays that are potential finalists for any given festival.”
“Theoretically it’s the same team of people (each year) but because of shifts in the world, at least three of us are brand new to the festival this year,” she said.
Martin-Cotten said she, Knight and others are part of the artistic department of SCR, including what she terms “subsets” such as the literary department, casting personnel and a number of dramaturgs.
Breaking Ground While Revealing How Book Musicals Are Created
According to Knight, Samples from The Lab was an outgrowth of SCR’s pandemic planning. “(It’s) something we’d long hoped to do. We were planning our season in early ’21, and because there were still a lot of questions of what we’ll do when returning to live performances, we decided to do just one full production” for PPF instead of the customary two shows.
As an aside, he noted that this year’s PPF might therefore prove to be an anomaly. “In the future, we’ll likely go back to having two full productions,” five readings, and no special events like Samples from The Lab.
At this year’s festival, the musical sample being shared with audiences will allow “audiences a peek behind the curtain at how we develop new works at SCR.”
Audiences will see a 30-minute excerpt from “Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life,” which is still being developed and written. They will have a chance to hear from Nick Green and Anika and Britta Johnson. The Johnsons originally created the show as a sung-through musical and wrote its music and lyrics. The new iteration includes a book (scenes without music) written by Green.
Knight said the event, unfolding at Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Samueli Theater and in collaboration with SCFTA,“makes space to work on (the show).” The presentation will include a 30-minute excerpt of the work-in-progress. Audience members will be invited to provide feedback, thus becoming participants in the creative process rather than simply observers.
Knight said this format is ideal for the process of transforming an all-music show into a book musical precisely because it gives the writers some space to work on the show. “(They) don’t have the pressure of having to have a full-length show” – and because of this, the program provides them with more freedom to try out new ideas. “It’s more like they give us a glimpse of what they have and what they’ve worked on.”
According to Knight, SCR’s artistic director, David Ivers, has been interested in adding a program like Samples from The Lab into the mix as part of the PPF. Despite its inclusion in this year’s festival, Knight said it’s “not likely” to be a recurring element in future PPFs.
Some Common Bonds with This Year’s Slate of Plays
Knight said that from year to year, he and the rest of the PPF team “don’t traditionally program around themes so we were not looking for something unifying.” Despite that fact, he says this year, “There was sort of an element of joy and even more than joy, energy to these pieces that were the ones that seemed to resonate the most and became the clear slate of plays.”
“It’s an exciting year because it presents a diverse group of playwrights, fresh voices and a set of stories that are very uplifting,” Martin-Cotten added. “The plays bring humor to things that are difficult and celebrate a diversity of American experiences.”
Martin-Cotten said this year “was so exciting because we had many many excellent plays we could move forward with. It’s a rigorous process to discuss the set of plays that we want to put forward for the festival, so it is an exciting, interesting conversation.”
Those elements emerged through “stories being told in an exciting way, and that also have a lovely diversity of style in the writing, from lush prose to a one-person show where the writing feels very rich and textured because it’s a solo show to others that feel very clipped and contemporary to another that’s a wild, convoluted spy comedy.”
She summarized that because of the diversity, “there’s a sort of breadth” to the plays. “For someone coming to see all five plays, you’re gonna feel real uplift. It also feels like no two are the same or like another in a way that feels very specific to this group.” Each said the five plays each “features a real singular voice and a real singular perspective.”
Four of the five staged readings are receiving one performance on the Segerstrom Stage, while the fifth (“avaaz”) is being performed three times in the Nicholas Studio space.
‘Clean/Espejos,’ an Entirely Bilingual Full Production
Knight noted that full productions “run outside of the festival as part of our season. It’s always great if it’s a play that’s been developed in the festival. Part of the fun of that is audiences can see a play in reading form and then come back and see it as a full production.”
“Vietgone,” “Poor Yella Rednecks,” “Sheepdog,” “Cambodian Rock Band” and “Shrew!” are just a few examples from the 2010s of new scripts that were largely developed through PPF and then went on to receive fully staged world premieres as part of subsequent SCR seasons.
Knight said “Clean” was a play SCR developed in the 2021 festival. “It was a reading of a new play that was filmed, edited and streamed online. So not too long after the reading itself was released in May (of last year), we made a decision to make it part of our 2022 season.”
The world premiere play is being billed by SCR as “Clean/Espejos,” underscoring its wholly bilingual nature. Christine Quintana’s play contains just two characters – one who speaks English, and one who speaks Spanish.
Adapted and translated into Spanish by Paula Zelaya Cervantes, the entire play is delivered in both Spanish and English from beginning to end. Every line of the script that’s spoken in English is flashed onto the stage in Spanish surtitles (projected above the action); likewise, every spoken Spanish word is surtitled in English.
The production, which has already opened on the Julianne Argyros Stage, is a collaboration with the Neworld Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia. Not only is “Clean/Espejos” the festival’s only full production, its generally dark mood and probing nature place it well outside the joy and buoyancy Martin-Cotten and Knight attribute to the five staged readings.
The play also exemplifies another quality that seems to drive the Pacific Playwrights Festival and can even be said to be its crucial, focal raison d’etre: It’s groundbreaking, not just exploring dramatic territory that’s anything but facile and easily grasped, but using daring innovation to do so.
This year’s Samples from The Lab is also the product of the same line of swing-for-the-fences thinking – an approach that almost guarantees anyone attending the festival will find not just entertainment but plenty of food for thought.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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