As writers go, playwrights are a curious lot.
Sure, they sit alone in their garrets—or whatever the modern equivalent is—transforming ideas into words just like poets, essayists and other creative writers. But stringing some good dialogue together is only part of the process. These words need actors, a director, a stage of some sort, and maybe even a costume or two, before they really exist.
Up the road in that other sunny valley—the Phoenix area—there is a group that has been nurturing playwrights for several years now. The Arizona Women's Theatre Company, or AZWTC, specializes in plays by women. The group's upcoming Pandora Festival, which showcases staged readings of scripts chosen from submissions to its contest, is now in its sixth season.
This year, two Tucson playwrights are represented: Mary Caroline Rogers and Esther Blumenfeld. They represent different generations and quite different styles of dramatic work. This is the fifth time Rogers will be represented in the festival; it's the first for Blumenfeld.
AZWTC president Joy Bingham Strimple says the group was founded in 2003 "to provide an innovative forum for women's voices," chiefly by producing original plays by women. Fairly quickly, however, the group stopped being a typical presenting organization and decided to focus on giving women an opportunity to see their plays done as staged readings.
Although Strimple has been a member for years, she is new to a leadership role. "A couple of years ago, many of those who had been around for a while decided to move on, and there were essentially three of us left standing. But we were determined to keep things going." Her leadership cohorts are Susan Assadi and Pamela Sterling.
The festival takes place over three days at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. "We seek submissions in three categories: 10-minute plays, one-act plays and full-length plays," Strimple says. The shorts are done Friday night; one of the full-length plays is presented Saturday afternoon; the one-acts are done Saturday night; and the final full-length play is done Sunday afternoon.
Rogers, the five-time honoree, moved to Tucson in the early 1990s. She said she was living in the Dallas area and found herself at loose ends. "I called my parents, and they told me they were retiring and moving to Tucson. I said, 'Oh, that sounds good.' They were not pleased. I'm sure they thought, 'Great, we get to bail her out again.'"
Rogers studied theater at Goucher College and Towson State University and had done some film work after college. "But I'd always been interested in writing," she says. "My father helped me submit my first play to a contest when I was 12, and I was a finalist."
Rogers also is an actress, and "at the time, the film and television industry was very alive in Tucson," she says. She managed to find work in numerous projects, including The Young Riders, a TV series about the Pony Express starring Stephen Baldwin and Josh Brolin. She also studied at the Magaw Studio and met some folks who were interested in doing new plays. "We created a small theater company, Indigo Playworks, and we did several of my plays there. OPP (Old Pueblo Playwrights) was also just starting up, with folks like Howard Allen and Patrick Baliani, and I was involved there, as well."
But the film work started to fade, so she began substitute-teaching in local schools. She found she liked teaching, and since 2001 has taught fifth-grade at Holladay Magnet Elementary School.
Besides her shows at Pandora, Rogers has been a finalist in numerous national competitions. She has had readings or full productions most recently at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque, N.M., and the Actors' Theatre of Santa Cruz, Calif.
Her Pandora play this year, The Memory of Us, is in the 10-minute category. "These 10-minute shorts are very popular now in contests across the country," she says. "My rules are: You have two characters; you establish the conflict immediately; and you hope your audience talks about what happens for a lot longer than 10 minutes afterward."
Blumenfeld, who retired with her husband from Atlanta to Tucson 17 years ago, has been a writer—she characterizes herself as a humorist—for most of her life. She's authored seven books and dozens of articles. But she had never written plays. She began experimenting with the genre after her husband died.
"Our retirement didn't quite go as planned," she says a bit wryly. But her playwright experiment was impressive.
Her first play, Here and There, was produced by the Detroit Repertory Theatre, a professional theater company affiliated with the Actors' Equity Association. It was a full production, part of the Detroit Repertory's season in 2003.
So she decided to try her hand again and wrote Under Midwestern Stars. This time, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre—another big, professional, regional theater—included it in the main stage season in 2007. "This was a half-million dollar production in a theater that seats 680 people!"
Of her success, she says, "I've learned how to work really hard to make it look really easy."
Now, her third play has been chosen for a staged reading at the Pandora Festival.
Blumenfeld says that although her plays are full of humor, they are not drawing-room comedies. She says she tries to ask questions, using comedy to explore serious subjects: Is anyone listening? What role does time play? What constitutes a relationship?
Blumenfeld says she is "delighted to get to see my play" at the Pandora Festival. "And I'm so glad that this festival exists. It's still tough for women. I would say: Young writers, keep at it. Keep rewriting. Keep sending your work."
And maybe, like Blumenfeld, you might be given a grand embrace.