Gettin' Played

If splashy special effects and epic backdrops are a must for your theater-going experience, Phoenix Theatre's Seventh Annual New Works Festival might not be for you. The monthlong festival, starting this weekend, showcases a workshop production of a new musical and staged readings of three new plays. In other words, theatergoers dole out their dough to see unpolished plays in which actors still cling to their scripts.

Not your scene? Doesn't matter, says festival co-producer and resident playwright Richard Warren. You're not the festival's type, anyway.

While everyone enjoys a good story, Warren says, the festival caters to theater buffs who dig the bare-bones creative processes of playwriting and acting.

"Our audiences are quite sophisticated," says Warren, who started the festival in 1998 with colleague and resident director Mark DeMichele. "They really listen hard. They understand the plays quite thoroughly."

Still, those with stunted imaginations should steer clear. While actors and directors do rehearse the staged readings, there are no fanciful costumes and no sets -- with the players still guided by the script.

"It's the very minimum we have to do to tell the story," Warren explains, adding that staged readings can be more satisfying than fully produced plays. "If you see a play, there's less to the imagination. Theater is about imagination to begin with."

This year's plays are Janet Neipris' Natives, a comedy about three grown daughters who return home and disrupt their mother's love life; Jack Heifner's Lucky, which follows a teenage boy who deserts his privileged parents; and Warren's Arizona Territory, an adaptation of the 1899 play Arizona. The Western-themed musical Lucky Star, conceived and directed by Michael Barnard, will show as a workshop production, which enjoys more development than a staged reading but still lacks the elements of a ready-for-stage play.

Audience critiques follow each performance, a tool the playwrights use to tweak their works before they really hit the stage. "These plays are pretty much ready to go, but the writers want to see how the audience responds," says Warren, who, as resident playwright of the festival, chooses which plays to showcase. "If you don't know how an audience responds, you don't know what you really have."

Warren admits the fest isn't for up-and-coming artists. The writers, directors and actors involved all have scores of credits to their names, having touched theaters locally, nationally and abroad. In fact, Warren may be the novice of the bunch, with just 10 years of playwriting under his belt.

His primary goal for the festival is to make playgoers think. While this year's lineup boasts a campy musical and a couple of comedies, Warren says the plays remain in touch with current social issues. (Watch, for instance, for the vaguely homosexual character during the reading of Warren's play, a twist on a century-old melodrama.)

"You can have stuff that's fun and silly, but plays should have something to say," Warren insists. "Every one of these plays has something to say."

The New Works Festival runs Friday, July 23, through August 21 at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell. Tickets are $7 per staged reading and $12 per workshop production, with a $30 four-show package available. Call 602-254-2151 for reservations. See for dates and times.

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Ashlea Deahl