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South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival

Seventeen years ago Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Company launched the Pacific Playwrights Festival with the goal of providing theatrical opportunities for writers who began as playwrights but had been lured away by paying work in television and film. By presenting new plays in reading form, the Festival aimed to give writers a chance to mature theatrically before, ideally, their plays are picked up for production elsewhere or go on to a full production at South Coast. To date the Festival has presented 112 plays to colleagues in the field of new play development who come from around the country to discover new works and new writers. Under the leadership of Marc Masterson, the Festival has begun to include more established writers as well: this year, he brought both Theresa Rebeck and Adam Rapp into the SCR fold.

By presenting new plays in reading form, the Festival aimed to give writers a chance to mature theatrically before, ideally, their plays are picked up for production elsewhere or go on to a full production at South Coast.

According to associate artistic director John Glore, the standard for selection in the Festival is pretty simple. They look for the best plays in the country. Literary manager Kelly Miller told me that every year they read 300-400 submissions, most of which come through agents. This year, all seven playwrights selected are also under commission through SCR, and they represent a cross-section of early-career, mid-career, and established writers. Zealot by Theresa Rebeck; Future Thinking by Eliza Clark; Mr. Wolf  by Rajiv Joseph; and Of Good Stock by Melissa Ross were presented as readings. Rest by Samuel D. Hunter, Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds, and The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois by Adam Rapp received full productions.

Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds, directed by Daniella Topol at the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival

The Festival also invites literary managers, dramaturgs, artistic directors, board members, representatives of foundations, directors, and 45-50 playwrights to spend the weekend seeing theater together. In an act of what Miller calls “artistic generosity,” the theater provides meals for participants and industry guests so that in between readings and productions, attendees can get to know one another and talk about the work being presented.

Though much of the audience consisted of industry professionals, South Coast has developed a devoted new play audience among their subscribers as well. Ticket buyers who have been involved in SCR’s new play programs, since David Emmes and Martin Benson founded the theater in 1964, attend the festival and do not hesitate to tell the literary and artistic staff what they think before and after performances, engaging in dialogue around the plays and creating a sense of community ownership around the Festival.  

In an email, writer Eliza Clark said that this spirit of collaboration and generosity was especially fruitful for her work:

The four days of rehearsal was invaluable to the process—my play was rewritten many times during that week and ended up landing in a surprising and exciting new place in time for the reading. It's such a gift to get to hear the words in the mouths of actors after having existed only on the page (and in my head) for so long. The particular group of artists that I worked really helped me deepen my understanding of the play and its characters. It's really the best kind of environment in which to work on a new play.

Its proximity to Los Angeles means that SCR can bring incredibly talented actors to the Festival, making the acting as much of a highlight of the weekend as the writing. Evan Handler (Sex in the City, The West Wing), Jon Tenney (The Closer), and Arye Gross (Castle) tore it up in plays by Melissa Ross, Rajiv Joseph, and Eliza Clark, respectively. In the same way that the Festival provides Hollywood writers with a theatrical experience, it also gives television and film actors a chance to exercise their live performance muscles. Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse, The Walking Dead), who performed in Eliza Clark’s Future Thinking, has an MFA from New York University, but says this is the first time in a while he’s had a chance to use the skills he learned there.

The four shows I saw could have just as easily been films as plays, sharing thematic and narrative similarities. Five Mile Lake featured the return of a prodigal son to his hometown where his brother still lives, prompting conflict and reflection from everyone on how they define home. Likewise Of Good Stock centered on a family reunion and a rehashing of long-standing differences between siblings. Future Thinking involved a young star’s inappropriate relationships with a fan, her mother, and her security guard. And in The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, a father was reunited with a daughter he had abandoned at an early age. The selected plays, with some exceptions, were all of a piece­—the  realistic, family-centered dramatic genre preferred by SCR and its Orange County audiences.  

Refreshingly, the Festival achieved gender parity among its writers and directors: Four of the writers and three of the directors were women. However, non-white writers were underrepresented, with only one playwright being a person of color (though Rebeck and Rapp’s plays both contain characters of color). SCR has recently launched two new community programsDialogue/Diálogos, aimed at gathering stories from Orange County residents, and the CrossRoads Commissioning Project, under which eight playwrights are writing plays inspired by the culture and diversity of Orange County.

Miller’s closing remarks reflected the supremely talented community of artists the festival has fostered over the years:

We're incredibly proud of the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival. Not only for the wide range of inspirational new work presented, but also for the incredible artistic community that's grown up around it. A spirit of artistic generosity and inclusion infused this year's festival, as we had a critical mass of over fifty playwrights join us from all over the country and Southern California. It was a weekend spent celebrating playwrights, who came from near and far to reconnect and celebrate the beauty and the importance of new plays. Our kind of community.

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And not the least confounding implication is that, while I'm sure there was no deliberate disingenuousness in declaring the standard of selection to be "They look for the best plays in the country," when one connects the dots in this article, perhaps it would be more to the point to amend that standard of selection to: "They look for the best plays in the country that 'fall within the realistic, family-centered dramatic genre preferred by SCR and its Orange County audiences.'" According to US Census Bureau statistics for 2012, the percentage of Orange County residents self-identifying as "white alone" is almost 75%. In what sense, then - considering the more realistically stated standard of selection above - are "non-white writers" underrepresented?

Oh, how to say this...? I respectfully submit that if the standard of selection for the new play festival is simply "They look for the best plays in the country," then it becomes irrelevant that "non-white writers were underrepresented, with only one playwright being a person of color." The implications of putting these two sentences into one article are confounding on so many levels.

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