Writing Crop

New Works festival helps whip untested stage fare into shape

Ever since he was a boy, Richard Warren has been haunted by Buffalo Bill. In an attempt to exorcise his Wild West demon, Warren ditched a career in public relations and, in late middle age, wrote a play about the late, great cowboy. That play, How I Came to Be Buffalo Bill, became the second installment in Phoenix Theatre's 1999 New Works Festival, which Warren -- along with actor/director Mark DeMichele -- founded last year.

The project presents four staged readings of plays by new and established authors, with the intention of enlightening audiences about the playwriting process and providing playwrights with a venue for their works-in-progress. While it's up for debate about which group benefits most (it's tough enough gathering an audience for a completed play and, given the festival's teeny advertising budget, attendance has been spotty), there's no denying the caliber of talent that Warren and DeMichele have gathered here.

In a town with no summer stock, it doesn't hurt that festival players are paid for their contributions -- a rarity in theater, and almost unheard of in staged readings. Funding from several large local agencies (and arguably the chance to work with celebrated playwright Jack Heifner) has lured nearly every local Equity performer of note. Besides DeMichele, celebrity actors involved in the project include Robyn Ferracane, Mike Traylor, Lillie Richardson, Ellen Benton, Robyn Allen, Ben Britain and Pamela Fields.

Paradise Valley playwright Richard Warren.
Paradise Valley playwright Richard Warren.

The list of writers is equally impressive. Elaine Romero, Arizona Theatre Company's award-winning playwright-in-residence, opened the festival with Barrio Hollywood, a play about a Chicano boxer that Romero is writing for San Diego Repertory Theatre. Warren's How I Came to Be Buffalo Bill, while little more than a first-person history lesson, is vividly written and was expertly read by actor Richard Glover, for whom the piece was written. Award-winning Australian playwright Julie Janson's Black Mary, about an aboriginal bushranger and her male traveling companion in 19th-century New South Wales, is this week's installment. Janson, who recently sold Black Mary to an Australian film company, took a break from writing the screenplay and flew to Phoenix to oversee the reading of her play.

The big news is Heifner's The Lemon Cookie, which closes the festival later this month. Heifner is best known for his play Vanities, which ran for five years in New York and became one of the longest-running plays in off-Broadway history. A contemporary romantic comedy, The Lemon Cookie is the only festival offering that isn't what Warren calls "either alternative or multicultural.

"Last year, we included a play about gay people," Warren says. "This year, we're doing an Hispanic play." The selection process is less random -- and more exclusive -- than Warren makes it sound. The event is invitational; all authors are solicited with an eye toward the festival's "international" theme: Each year, Warren and company assemble the writing of friends and acquaintances whose work allows participants to "network with the greater theatrical world," as he puts it. "This is a valuable opportunity to connect local theater talent with their colleagues from around the world."

The benefit to audiences is less evident. The festival, according to Janson, is meant to enlighten rather than entertain. "Mostly, the people who want to hear plays read are those who follow theater, who care about watching a work in progress. They get to participate in the process of creating the play."

But neither the festival nor its participants seem keen on offering opinions on why playwriting is important in a greater sense. Janson shrugged off the question, while Warren defined playwriting as an unfortunate habit.

"It's an addiction," he says. "I love thinking up a story, putting people into it, imagining what they would say. I always wanted to be a playwright, ever since I was a really little kid. But I didn't want to starve, so I went into public relations and did that for a while, first."

John Milner, a playwright who's recently relocated to Phoenix from Portland, is skeptical about Warren's reasoning. "Can you imagine some 7-year-old telling you he wants to be a playwright when he grows up? A kid goes to a play and maybe comes away saying he wants to be an actor. But kids don't know that the thing they just saw was written by someone."

"Playwriting is the ultimate vanity," writes Avery Blotkamp in The Principle of the Play, an enormously uninteresting book in which the author takes up an entire chapter explaining how he narrowly missed being produced by Mike Nichols. "The playwright plays God, placing words into mouths he has created from nothing. He then sits in the dark, enraptured, while mere mortals recite his phrases."

"Well, that's a lot of old balls," grumps Milner. "If hearing people read our words was all playwrights were after, we wouldn't sit in front of a word processor for a whole year pounding out some insane story. We'd just hand our diaries to our wives and say, 'Start at the top of the page.'"

Milner's work isn't represented in the Phoenix Theatre festival ("No one invited me," he says) or any other local festival, and he doesn't plan to submit any of his two dozen plays for consideration, either.

"Festivals don't provide a working writer's living," he explains. "That's what grant money is for. I moved here because I've qualified for every possible grant I could get in my home state, and now I'm here to see about some Arizona funding. Plus I was sick of the rain."

In one of Milner's plays, a novelist leaves a suicide note in which he complains that his work was never loved by a wide enough audience. "This, of course, is utter bullshit," Milner says. "This fellow didn't realize that writing is about either entertaining people or making money. If you're lucky, it's about both."

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