All Works, New Plays

Within the acting world there is a great dichotomy, one that dictates that the finest actors often are found working within the medium most likely to keep their talents a secret: the theater. While suspect talents are consistently propped up by Hollywood's media machine, the heavy lifting is left to those committed to a storied genre responsible for the lion's share of drama's greatest moments.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than during the summer blockbuster season, when heavyweights such as Arnold Schwarzenegger rule the box office with an iron fist. And while it's not a crime to spend eight bucks to watch the future governor of California stretch his acting chops as a middle-aged cyborg, it is dangerously low on substance. For audiences looking to chew on weightier material, we recommend a healthy dose of Phoenix Theatre's New Works Festival.

Now entering its sixth year, the festival has grown from a fledgling operation into Phoenix's undisputed summertime theater fix. In doing so, it has managed to shine a much-needed spotlight on the actors, directors and playwrights who make up the Valley's theatrical community. This year's series of staged readings -- which kicks off Friday, July 18, with Richard Warren's Trio With Flute -- features the works of local and national playwrights, including New Yorker Hal Corley, L.A.-based James McClure, and the duo of Michael Barnard and Alan Gordon.

"There is a real workshop mentality at the heart of each show and throughout the festival as a whole," says Warren, festival co-founder and resident playwright. "The plays arrive pretty much ready to go, then the playwrights come to town to work with local actors and directors for a week prior to each performance. It's a wonderful process to watch unfold."

It is also a process that more and more people seem eager to experience firsthand. With record crowds expected this year, what began as something of an underground event has become a must-see among Valley theater aficionados. To that end, Warren and fellow co-founder and resident director Mark DeMichele have added Saturday matinees to the schedule for the first time. In addition, audience members interested in doing their best James Lipton impersonation can get inside the actor's studio, New Works-style, in Q&A discussions with the casts, directors and playwrights following each reading.

"For us it's always been about trying to expose those on a national level to what's going on in Phoenix, and we've been amazed at how the event continues to grow," says DeMichele. "In the end, it's an amazing opportunity to see many of the finest actors and directors in the Valley performing the works of some extremely talented playwrights."

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Craig Wallach