"A great piece of theater is never finished, but at some point it has to start." — Matthew Kagan, The New Play Exchange
Let’s face it: whether you’re responsible for staging the production or simply buying a ticket, you’re taking a risk on a new play. But judging from the abundance of regional, national — and yes, even world — premieres in our area, there are plenty of people eager to take that risk.
One of those is Bob Airhart, formerly of Springboro and now of Highland, N.Y. Airhart estimates he and his wife see between 20 and 30 new plays each year, both in New York and at new-play festivals around the country.
They’re always encouraging others to try new work as well. “One reason is that the final play has never been written,” he notes. “The world keeps unfolding and there’s always new perspectives and new ideas. We need to adapt to the changes. And I find that new plays often give me a new perspective on the classics.”
Airhart also wants to encourage creative new playwrights. “Not every new play is worth seeing but we won’t find the gems, the ones that will become classics, if we don’t encourage people to try,” he says. “Every classic play was once a brand new play by a brand new playwright.”
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WHERE TO SEE NEW PLAYS IN OUR REGION
Theater-lovers from the Miami Valley often head to Louisville in the spring, where one of the nation’s most prestigious new-play festivals takes place each year. For more than four decades Actor’s Theatre has hosted the Humana Festival of New American Plays, a mammoth undertaking that’s introduced more than 450 plays into the American theater repertoire. Many end up in New York and throughout the nation. In our area you’ll see them at venues like The Human Race Theatre Company, Dayton Theatre Guild, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theater Cincinnati.
“Audiences experiencing new work can expect innovation in its truest sense,” says the theater’s director of marketing, Steve Knight. “Perhaps the story onstage will unfold from a perspective you’ve never considered, or perhaps the playwright will manipulate language or theatrical form in a way you’ve never experienced before. “
Closer to home, there’s FutureFest, the annual summer festival that’s been bringing playwrights from across the country to Dayton for the past 28 years to see their plays staged for the first time. Thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers, a total of 168 new plays have graced the Dayton Playhouse stage. This year’s festival takes place July 20-22 and will unveil six new scripts. Joining the casts and playwrights after each play are professional critics who give feedback. Audiences are also encouraged to share thoughts and suggestions.
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“I think of Dayton FutureFest as a spring of the American theater — the source of new theatrical work from which the Broadway river flows,” says Matthew Kagen of softFocus, a new play accelerator. “As audience member for staged new work, yours is the most important creative function of any audience the play will ever have — you turn the script into a play with your presence.”
WHY STAGE A NEW PLAY?
Kevin Moore, president and artistic director of the Human Race believes developing new works should be part of every producing theater’s mission. “It is how we make sure the great plays will continue to be written and it’s not usually a playwright’s first work that becomes their calling card — but the third or fourth,” he says. “They need the nurturing to get to that point. That is our job.”
At his own theater, he says, developing new plays has clearly been part of the mission for years. A prime example is “26 Pebbles” by Eric Ulloa, the drama based on the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. After premiering at the Human Race in 2017, the touching drama is now being produced around the country and was nominated for a 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
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Moore’s 2018-2019 season will kick off in September with a world premiere of “Banned from Baseball,” a play that focuses on the 1989 battle between Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose and MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti. “I can find the same joy in seeing a new work successfully brought to the stage while not being a financial success, as a well-known work being a commercial success,” Moore concludes. “But reality dictates we can’t afford to do that very often.”
He says that’s because new plays are more expensive to produce and because audiences may be hesitant to purchase a ticket for a play that has no recognizable title. “A company cannot afford to continually lose money if it cannot find other funds to support these important works,” Moore adds.
When considering new work, Amy Wegener, literary director at Actor’s Theatre, says it’s imporant to consider each play on its own terms. “How imaginatively and skillfully does the play meet the ambition it sets out to fulfill? ” she and her colleagues ask. “The plays that capture our hearts tend to surprise us, to deploy their own rich vocabularies, to invent new worlds entirely or challenge us to examine our world from a new angle. And they’re thrillingly theatrical; there’s a reason why they must unfold live, in real time.”
Equity actor Annie Pesch of Dayton has been involved in theater all her life. Over the years, she’s appeared in 15 FutureFest shows, has directed three of them and is currently responsible for staging the upcoming production of “Fettered” in July. She was on stage in the regional premiere of “The Kite Runner” at the Cleveland Play House and Actor’s Theatre and she appeared in New York playwright’s Michael Slade’s world premiere of “Family Shots” at The Human Race.
Pesch says it’s always exciting to create a play from scratch. “For established plays there are often movies or other productions of the play you can see, but if you’re directing or acting in a new play you’re putting your own vision to what you are doing,” she says. “It’s the first time anyone will be seeing it so no one has preconceived notions of what you’ll be presenting.”
When Pesch is seeing plays in New York or Chicago, she’ll says she’ll try to catch a mixture of both new and older shows. The advantage to a showcase like FutureFest, she adds, is that audience members have the added advantage of listening to the adjudicators after each of the production and learning how to look at a new script— its structure, characters, themes. “
FUNDING THE FUTURE
One of those most passionate about the staging of new plays is Jim Steinberg who represents the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. His organization has provided grants totalling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.
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At the Humana Festival each spring, in cooperation with the American Theater Critic’s Association, Steinberg presents $40,000 to outstanding new plays and playwrights, making it the largest national new play award program of its kind.
“Our finest plays are those that are complex, compelling and contemplative,” he told the crowd this year in Louisville. “They allow us to walk in the shoes of someone else even if only for a short time. They show us characters who are both like us and who are not like us and who have, just as we do, foibles, blind spots and hopefully, more than just a bit of humanity.”
Meredith McDonough, associate artistic director at Actor’s Theater, believes the importance of new plays is to give voice to what is happening right now — to be able to see stories written thru a current perspective. “These plays are our history – when we look back on this time 20 years from now, these are the stories that will document who we were,” she says. “We need to keep adding to the canon and by doing so, keep it relevant and rich.”
WANT TO GO?
What: FutureFest, a weekend of theater featuring six new plays. Each production is followed by remarks from the playwright, evaluation by professional adjudicators and audience feedback.
When: July 20-22
Where: Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler, located in Wegerzyn Gardens Metropark.
Tickets: Full weekend passes are $100 and include an opening reception, breakfast coffee and pastries and a Saturday evening chicken dinner compliments of Benjamins. Individual tickets are $20.
This year’s lineup
“WHAT ARE WORDS WORTH TO A LONG FELLOW?” by Carl Williams of Houston, Texas (8 p.m., Friday, July 20.)
A young man intent on living a dissolute, artistic life as a poet becomes infatuated with a new love and must decide whether to sacrifice love in exchange for artistic success. Poetry, love and self-interest intersect in challenging ways. to form the ever-shifting current of the young man’s life.
“FETTERED by William Kovascik of Islip, NY (10 a.m. Saturday, July 21)
In Maryland, in 1620, a white woman could marry an African slave – but only if she was willing to become enslaved herself, and to see her children and their offspring born into slavery. So when a poor Irish immigrant girl meets an African slave, choices have to be made.
“LATE IN THE GAME” by Barbara Snow of Minneapolis, MN (3 p.m. Saturday, July 21)
How do Baby Boomers — the generation that opposed the Vietnam War and marched for civil and women’s rights, settle into their new role as senior citizens? Not very gracefully.
“LAST RITES-DETROIT, 1967” by Randy Neale of Charleston, SC (8 p.m. Saturday, July 21)
On the second day of the riots in Detroit in July of 1967, three people take refuge from the chaos on the streets in a gas station/convenience store on 12th Street in the epicenter of the riot. Their differing experiences and points of view clash even while they are giving each other comfort until they reach a point where the violence outside spills over to their refuge. How much or how little has changed in the 50 years since?
“OF MEN AND CARS” by Jim Geoghan of Los Angeles, CA (10 a.m. Sunday, July 22)
Jim stole his father’s ’39 Ford when he was four and soon realized some of the greatest events and memories in his life would happen in cars. From the Bronx to Beverly Hills and places in between, this play follows Jim’s life and his relationships with all sorts of people including his father.
“QUEEN OF SAD MISCHANCE” by John Minigan of Framingham. MA (3 p.m. Sunday, July 22)
Kym thinks she’s lucked into the perfect resume-builder for a biracial college senior determined to find a career in academia: she’ll help renowned feminist scholar finish her ground-breaking book on Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret before Alzheimer’s makes the task impossible. As the passing months make clear that Beverly’s failing memory is not the greatest obstacle to their work.