Playwrights of the Western World

Two local playfests raise hopes of unsung dramatists

Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame formula does not apply to undiscovered playwrights. They get only seven minutes, if they're lucky, rarely get their work read or produced, and are seldom heard from beyond tiny theater circles.

Phoenix, ever a cultural backwater, has founded few programs aimed at nurturing up-and-coming playwrights. Given Arizona Theatre Company's recent abandonment of its Genesis New Play Reading program, and Playwrights Theatre's disappointing annual festival of student works this year, the play's, evidently, not the thing in Phoenix. But with the advent of two new play festivals, that may be changing.

Filling the spot vacated by ATC, Phoenix Theatre has launched its New Works Festival, which joins Actors Theatre of Phoenix's New Play Cabaret in presenting staged readings of untried work. While it's good news that Phoenix now has twice as many Equity-based play festivals, it isn't immediately clear how they benefit the playgoing public. There's a lot of talk by organizers about how festivals are a "cultural resource to the community," and one producer crows that these series provide "something for local actors to do during the summer doldrums," as if that's something the rest of us are supposed to care about. But the series do little to convince professional companies to mount new works, and while the material is all new, neither festival wholly features unknown playwrights. Of the 10 plays read, four are by nationally known authors and three are from well-lauded local favorites.

Although representatives from professional theaters are invited to the ATP festival each year, few attend, according to program director Glorianne Engel. (One artistic director told me, "Hey, I haven't received an invitation yet!", and most admitted that they don't look to these festivals to supply them with new material for upcoming seasons.) While the festivals do land local plays on Equity stages, they're usually stages owned by the theater sponsoring the series. "We got one of our plays produced by Actors Theatre last season," says Engel, a theater history professor at Arizona State University.

That play, Michael Grady's well-received White Picket Fence, began as an entry in Engel's Writers Circle, which provides plays for the ATP cabaret.

Richard Warren, co-director and resident playwright of the Phoenix Theatre festival, claims the powers that be at that company "are strongly considering presenting a new work in the future," but he's quick to point out that few large theater companies can afford to present untried material. "The sad truth is that few people are willing to shell out 30 bucks to see an unknown quantity," Warren says. "Programs like ours make up for the audience-pleasers that we see produced time and again."

Some frustrated writers claim that such invitation-only playfests showcase nepotism better than they do new work, and that untried talent gets passed up in favor of the same handful of locals we've already heard from. "If you're not Michael Grady, you have few choices out here," says one Tempe-based playwright who claims he couldn't get his two-act drama read by any local company last season. "If you're lucky, some small theater will put up your play. But no one will see it, because there's never any advertising budget with these tiny companies, and there's no subscriber base. And no one from the bigger theaters will come look at your work. They just don't."

Phoenix playwright Terry Earp doesn't disagree. Tired of schlepping her writing from one playhouse to the next, Earp opened On the Spot Theatre, which exclusively showcases her writing and where her shows invariably sell out every performance. "You can only complain about being shut out for so long," says Earp, who's looking to represent other playwrights this season. "I'm certain festivals benefit someone, but I'm so busy churning out my own plays that I'm out of that loop."

Playwright Ken Heaton, whose Mustard Seed is featured in the PT festival, is cautiously grateful. "I'd like to think that these programs lead to productions by living playwrights," says Heaton, whose War and Civility was produced here a few years ago and led to his acceptance in Yale's playwriting program. "But theaters are forced to view plays as commodities, and less-innovative theater directors tend to stay with the tried and true."

Ultimately, the benefits of these series are limited. The audience is offered some insight into the playwriting process, and the playwright gets to hear his play read and to hear feedback from a paying crowd. But don't look for either festival to have a lasting impact on professional theater in the Valley. Not one of the seasons announced so far by local companies includes a new work by a local playwright.

"Maybe the biggest benefit of these festivals," says Michael Grady, "is that some playwrights learn that maybe they really shouldn't be playwrights."

About the series:
Actors Theatre of Phoenix's Third Annual New Play Cabaret comprises six staged readings on four consecutive nights in the Herberger Theater Center's Stage West. The plays were written by local playwrights and developed by the company's Writers Circle. All readings are at 7:30 p.m.

Night Cries by Gus Edwards is the first of two entries by the award-winning Phoenix-based playwright. Staged reading, July 16.

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