Aside from South Coast Repertory and its annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, how many Orange County theater companies can you name that work closely with playwrights, actively creating opportunities for them, and continually fostering the development of new plays?
You’d be correct if you answered “one.” That would be Chance Theater. Since first opening its doors in 1999, the Anaheim Hills theater company has strived to showcase new works, with each season featuring one or more world premieres.
The turning point came in 2011, when largely informal efforts became a formal program dedicated to naming a resident playwright. Selected on an annual basis, each of these playwrights has worked closely with Chance and been provided with support and resources geared toward writing and developing new scripts.
Among those who have been Chance resident playwrights: Lauren Yee (“Cambodian Rock Band,” “The Tiger Among Us,” “King of the Yees”), Jenny Connell Davis (“Scientific Method,” “Dragon Play,” “Goddess of Mercy”), Jessica Huang (“The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” “Mother of Exiles,” “Purple Cloud”) and Marshall Pailet (“Triassic Parq,” “Claudio Quest,” “Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or How I Started the Iraq War”).
Commitment to Playwrights is Integral to Chance’s Core Mission
The seeds for Chance’s commitment to supporting playwrights in their work were sown during the company’s inaugural season (1999), which included only new, unproduced plays whose Chance productions were world premieres. The plays were either those written by Chance founding members or unproduced scripts the founding members had read and deemed worth staging.
Oanh Nguyen, Chance’s founding artistic director, said, “We’ve always known that new work would be a part of our core mission.” The key element in creating a formal program, he said, was locating and tapping funding, which began to fall into place over Chance’s first few years.
Nguyen said that by 2011, the pieces were in place. “Once we were able to find the resources to start a new works program, we started discussing with different playwrights how best an intimate theater could support new works and playwrights.”
In producing Adam Szymkowicz’s play “Nerve” for its 2011 season, Chance worked closely with the New York-based playwright, whose plays include “The Parking Lot” and “The Bookstore.” Nguyen said during the process of mounting his new play, Szymkowicz was “the most generous” in helping the small company create its new playwright-intensive program.
James McHale, Chance’s interim literary manager from 2018 to 2020 and literary manager since 2020, said leading into and during 2011, various company members had conversations with Szymkowicz “about ideas and ways that the theater could begin … a formal program to support the development of new work and playwrights.”
Nguyen notes that Szymkowicz shared his experience of working with other programs like the one Chance wanted to create. Chance’s resources at that time, he said, “were extremely limited” – yet despite this, Szymkowicz essentially donated his time to helping the company lay the foundation for its resident playwright program.
McHale said Szymkowicz “offered to fly himself here (from New York) if the theater could help house him while we produced a staged reading of a new, unpublished, unproduced play of his.”
During his 2011 tenure as Chance’s first resident playwright, Chance produced three Szymkowicz plays – the West Coast premiere of “Nerve” in a full production, and staged readings of “The Artist” and “Hearts Like Fists” under the banner of the OTR (“On the Radar”) Reading Series.
McHale said as Chance was creating its new program, “There wasn’t another theater in O.C. with dedicated support or a formal program,” aside from SCR. Chance’s program “has taken inspiration and influence” from SCR, Playwrights Horizons in New York, and similar programs.
Putting New Works ‘On the Radar’
If there’s a heart to Chance Theater’s commitment to supporting every aspect of what playwrights do in creating something new for the stage, it’s the company’s OTR New Works Program – OTR standing for “On the Radar,” a phrase which suggests that Chance is continuously scanning the national theater landscape for playwrights and scripts worth supporting.
Created in 2011, the program consists of a series of staged readings of new scripts, support for a playwright’s one-year residency with Chance, and a mechanism through which past resident playwrights can receive a commission to create and develop a new play.
The company’s website states that the program’s goal is “to create a deep and long-term commitment to playwrights by offering them access to a community of artists and audiences, a supportive environment, and the freedom to explore their own boundaries and interests.”
McHale said one of the first steps in the process is that he pairs each new “RP” (the designation Chance personnel use for resident playwright) with directors, dramaturgs and casts to work on their plays. Prior to the rehearsal process, the playwright, director, dramaturg, actors and McHale meet to strategize developing the play. Questions or issues anyone might have with the script are defined.
Post-show talkbacks elicit audience reaction the playwright, who is present during the process, often finds useful in fine-tuning a play progress. A key component is that audience members are requested to provide feedback about the play by completing a questionnaire, either in person or at the theater’s website.
At first, the OTR staged readings were only for resident playwrights. As the program grew, Chance began expanding the OTR New Works program to include not just the current RP, but also past RPs plus additional playwrights seeking to workshop their scripts.
Each New Script is a Unique Animal
McHale notes that every new play being developed takes on its own life and specifics. “Sometimes, we are working on a brand new script that has never been read aloud before, or may only have one act written at the time we begin and the playwright is working to add additional scenes or complete a full draft by the end of the process. Sometimes the playwright is overhauling a script and doing major rewrites in between rehearsals. Other times, they are simply fine tuning, making surgical changes to refine the play as they get it ready for a future production.”
McHale said “hearing a play out loud with a professional group of artists is a critical part of the development part of the play … so having a dedicated space with people that are giving it their time and attention is very helpful.”
On an almost daily basis, each RP is in the room with the new play’s cast, director and a dramaturg, hearing the play in rehearsals, then having discussions with the director and dramaturg each day. That’s followed by an editing and rewriting process as rehearsals progress.
Past resident playwrights, McHale said, have told him they find follow-up conversations with audiences to be valuable. That exchange of information, he notes, “can really help the playwright to understand where the play currently is, and help them clarify what their next steps are.”
2022’s Resident Playwright Shares His Story
Exal Iraheta, this year’s resident playwright, came to Chance’s attention when Zayd Dorhn, 2012’s resident playwright, suggested the theater consider him. After Iraheta submitted “They Could Give No Name,” he was appointed as the RP for 2022.
Iraheta said the play was first developed at Victory Gardens’ 2019 Ignition Festival, where it received a workshop and a staged reading. He spent a week working on the play with Chance Theater, putting his script through its paces through a workshop and a staged reading.
The play, he said, focuses on a play about undocumented immigrants who perish in the Arizona desert while trying to relocate to the U.S., and the American medical authorities who are forced “to deal with nameless bodies – people who are lost souls who want their names to be recovered.”
The play’s intention, he said, “was to focus on what happens when you have people who are forgotten and lost. It was wonderful hearing people really diving into what it really means to be a person, in general.”
Iraheta said what struck him was how the audience of Chance’s staged reading “found ways to connect with the idea of coming to a different place, what it means to sacrifice everything, and the power of a name. It was wonderful, and the audience conversation was fantastic.”
In late July and early August, Iraheta spent two weeks at Chance Theater to work on “Hongo,” a much newer play. Audience comments and feedback following the staged reading were so specific that the Chance team decided to take the unusual step of giving Iraheta three days to implement audience-driven input before conducting a second staged reading.
Iraheta told Voice of OC that while “the model most (programs) go with is one of each (workshop and reading),” he found “power in the immediacy of having two readings so close. That’s very rare in terms of development.”
It was also helpful, and instructive, for him as a playwright. “Most of the takeaway from the feedback questions the audience asked highlighted things I hadn’t thought about.” That feedback caused Iraheta to shift the play’s focus from the relationship between the main character and her son to her romantic relationship with a fellow university science professor.
“After the first reading, everyone wanted to know more about her relationship with him. I played with that after the reading,” he said. Intense reworking over three days expanded the script from 60 to more than 80 pages.
Through audience feedback, Iraheta said, “others will expose areas you hadn’t realized or are just discovering.” Chance’s approach during audience talkbacks following staged readings, he said, are of particular value: “It’s less about what’s working or is confusing, less about how we can fix it, and more about how the stories land with audiences.” With other theater companies he has worked with, “you don’t really get that kind of care with audience response.”
Playwrights’ Views of Chance’s Program
Playwright Jenny Connell Davis’ “Scientific Method” had a staged reading at the Chance in 2016 as part of her residency, then went on to receive its world premiere at Rivendell Theater in Chicago in the fall of 2019.
Davis has worked with multiple theaters throughout the nation, but considers Chance her artistic home, having collaborated with the company on seven of her plays – the latest of which, “Matinicus,” will be seen next season in its first full production, the script’s world premiere.
She says by providing playwrights a space wherein they can develop their work, the company “is serving a vital role in American theater, creating the kind of access point that allows people to attend, participate in, and take ownership of what’s on stage in a way that other, larger institutions just can’t begin to match.”
The 2015 RP, Lauren Yee, has seen two of her plays fully produced and two more receive staged readings, saying Chance “has been a warm and welcoming home to my work in Orange County and has been the launching pad to numerous works that have had a continued life across the country.”
Jessica Huang, the 2019 RP, said she found the process “so useful just to hear the play in front of Chance’s audiences,” calling them “experienced, focused and eager to support experimental and challenging work” and saying “their engagement and reactions taught me so much.”
McHale said he and others working year-round with this program have found it self-perpetuating: “We are introduced to more exciting new plays, not only in the season of the playwright’s residency, but beyond.” RPs, he said, “introduce us to their playwright friends and colleagues, and through these referrals we get to know even more playwrights.”
The pandemic caused Chance to reschedule the 2020 OTR series to 2021. The initial readings were done as online productions that were live streamed, but by mid-year, McHale said “we transitioned them back onto the stage.”
Most recently added to the Chance’s resident playwright program is a playwriting commission awarded annually to a past RP. The commission, McHale said, “allows us to further support RPs on the creation and development of new plays for the American theater canon.”
Chance Theater’s Resident Playwrights
Chance’s playwright-intensive program to develop new works for theater isn’t just available to its resident playwrights during the year of their residency. The company’s literary manager, James McHale, said “we don’t consider it a one-year-only title. Once you’re an RP, you’re always an RP.”
The company’s On-the-Radar program is available to all past resident playwrights. It’s a way for the theater company “to continue the relationship with them,” McHale said, “providing a place for them to return and continue to develop new work.”
Here’s a list of each of Chance’s resident playwrights by year, beginning with 2011, and the various plays each has workshopped and developed through the theater’s programs both during their residency and in the years since:
2011: Adam Szymkowicz. Plays developed: Full production of “Nerve,” staged readings of “Hearts Like Fists” and “The Artist.” Szymkowicz returned in 2012 to workshop his play “Where You Can’t Follow” via a staged reading and in 2016 for a workshop production of “Rare Birds.” Chance commissioned his “Hearts Like Planets” and live-streamed a staged reading in 2021.
2012: Zayd Dohrn. Plays developed: Full staging of “Reborning,” staged readings of “The Origin Story of Mr. Clean” and “Magic Forest Farm.” Dohrn’s “Bedlam” had a staged reading in 2018.
2013: Marshall Pailet. Plays developed: Full production of “Triassic Parq: The Musical,” staged readings of “Loch Ness” and “Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or How I Started the Iraq War.” Chance produced a full staging of “Loch Ness” in 2015 and “Claudio Quest” in 2017.
2014: Nick Jones. Plays developed: Staged readings of “Verite,” “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century.”
2015: Lauren Yee. Plays developed: Full production of “Samsara,” staged reading of “Untitled Chinese Play.” Yee returned to Chance in 2016 for a staged reading of “A New Music Play.” Chance’s 2017 full production of her “In a Word” was its Southern California premiere.
2016: Jenny Connell Davis. Plays developed: Staged readings of “Scientific Method” and “Gaston,” workshop production of “Alice and Frank.” In 2015, Chance staged a full production of Davis’ “The Dragon Play” and staged readings of “The Candidate” (2017), “End of Shift” (2019) and “Matinicus: A Lighthouse Play” (2022), which in 2023 will receive a full production, the play’s world premiere.
2017: Ted Malawer. Plays developed: Staged readings of “The Anatomy of Love” and “Times Square Psychic.”
2018: Joanna Garner. Plays developed: Staged reading of “The Orange Garden” and workshop of “Gutting.” Garner’s “100 Heartbreaks” had a staged reading in 2020.
2019: Jessica Huang. Plays developed: Staged reading of “Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying,” workshop production of “Mother of Exiles.”
2020: Krista Knight. Plays developed: Staged reading (in 2021) of “Shooter!” and “Crimson Lit: Scarlet Letter Setlist,” which received a second staged reading (and singing) in 2022.
2021: B.J. Tindal. Plays developed: Staged reading of “The Queer Couch,” live-streamed staged reading of “Lazy Kinda Free.”
2022: Exal Iraheta. Plays developed: Staged readings of “They Could Give No Name” and “Hongo.”
2023: Keiko Green.
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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