Tales From the Script

Richard Warren abandoned a career in advertising and rewrote himself as a playwright. But when the cost of a staged reading of one of his plays proved prohibitive, Warren convinced Phoenix Theatre to present the piece as part of a new plays festival. Today, the monthlong Phoenix Theatre New Works Festival, the seventh annual installment of which begins July 23, has become an institution.

Mostly an insider institution (even if Warren swears it "isn't an industry thing"), the festival is open to the public, but it's not necessarily built for the casual theatergoer.

"It's for people who know the difference between a staged reading and a full-on play," Warren admits. "You have to be able to suspend belief in a big way, because the actors are still on book; we press three chairs together and call it a couch, things like that. People who show up looking for a complete production might be disappointed, but most people who come to the festival know that."

Some of the plays from past festivals have gone on to become full-on productions, however. Elaine Romero's Barrio Hollywood has been produced several times since its festival debut, and Black Mary, Julie Janson's play about an aboriginal bushranger, has been staged in Australia.

The festival is invitational, and nepotism looms large. Of the four plays presented this year, half are PT-related: one is by Warren, director of the festival; another is by the director of the playhouse itself. Partiality is a tradition of the event: In recent years, an adaptation of The Quiltmaker's Gift by Alan Prewitt, artistic director of PT's children's theater, was featured.

Warren makes no secret of the fact that he's built the festival around one of his plays each summer. "Yes, I hold one of the slots for myself. But I try to bring in very good playwrights, so my own work can't fall short. And it's not like we always do a play by the artistic director, one by me, and two others."

This year, the "two others" are Natives, a contemporary comedy by Janet Neipris, and Jack Heifner's Lucky, a wacky one-act comedy. The in-house fare is somehow state-specific: Warren's Arizona Territory is an old-time melodrama, and Lucky Star, by PT artistic director Michael Barnard, is a musical Arizona history lesson set at the base of Picacho Peak. That show will receive a full-scale workshop production, while the others will be read by Equity actors on loan from their union.

"Many big-time playwrights have ties to universities or some kind of venue that previews their plays," Warren says. "I've got ties to Phoenix Theatre. I tell people outright that I'm doing this to get my work seen. But it's also a great opportunity to see new work by established and up-and-coming playwrights. The PT Festival isn't just about me."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela