The (New) Play's the Thing

Old Pueblo Playwrights' New Play Festival provides local playwrights with a range of emotions from panic to sheer joy

Germaine Shames spent a large chunk of her professional life in an executive position with Hilton International. She decided to make a change to pursue something she had always had an itch for—writing. She wrote for some business journals. She was a foreign correspondent for a small news service. Then she thought she would try her hand at novels. She's had four published and has won the Arizona Commission on the Arts' literary fellowship in fiction. 

Still, another medium beckoned, summoning her from long, long ago. 

"I had been a theater major my first year in college," she said in a phone interview. But other subjects crowded that one out of her academic path, leading to very different kinds of professional pursuits. Still, her interest in theater persisted. She wanted to try her hand at playwriting. So she did.

Next weekend she will see one of her first efforts given legs as part of the Old Pueblo Playwrights' New Play Festival, which over three days will feature 11 plays developed by members of the OPP group. This is the 23rd year of the festival; the group has been around for 28 years. That's a lot of new plays born right here, representing a considerable number of Tucsonans who have had the desire and the will—and the courage—to tackle this creative challenge.

John Vornholt is the president of OPP and is overseeing the festival. He's a well-published sci-fi novelist, but after he moved to Tucson from Los Angeles, he became interested in the theater world here and found OPP about seven years ago. Although the number of members of the group changes from year to year, he says right now there are about 25 regulars.

The group meets every Monday night. The format involves a table reading of a play that a member brings in. Sometimes the readers are other OPP members; sometimes the playwright might bring in actors to help with the reading. There's a very specific way the critiques of the reading are handled, Vornholt emphasizes. One member is given the role of facilitator, posing various questions to the rest of the group. Group members address the facilitator with their questions, not the playwright, and the chief rule is that the members do not suggest rewrites. Says Vornholt: "They may say something like, 'I didn't understand why this character did such and so,' but they don't say, 'You would be better off without that character.'" The playwright listens but doesn't defend. There's a sense of safety built in, which is critical as the writers begin to allow their work to make the transition from their own imaginations to a more public forum.

The play is given at least two such readings, and then the members vote to see if there is a consensus that the script is ready to make its next transition, which would be a staged reading in front of a live audience. This is what happens at the festival.

The goal is to give the writer an opportunity to see the play on its feet, as well as to provide that most essential tool, audience feedback. The audience is encouraged to ask questions and lend observations after each reading.

Freelance writer Dave Sewell is directing one of the festival pieces. He's been associated with OPP for quite a few years, as a director or reader, but two years ago he joined officially to develop his playwriting skills. 

"It's a great supportive environment. It's a good place to get some feedback and to give your support in exchange."

The playwrights who are represented in the festival are responsible for soliciting their own directors, and playwright Leslie Powell asked Sewell to direct her short piece, Soldier Boy. "It's only about 10 minutes long, but it's very intense," Sewell says.

Sewell says that it's a very different task to direct a staged reading for a work in progress than it is to direct a fully formed piece as part of a theater's season. "Primarily this is all for the playwright. You're helping the playwright see where the play is at that particular time . . . up on its feet with real actors going through the process of solving the problems that actors must do to bring a play and its characters to life." The playwrights have a chance to witness whether what they have intended to communicate actually translates to the director and the actors. And, says Sewell, the playwright gets to see the audience's reaction to what it is witnessing. "They can see where their vision is and where they might want it to go next."

Both Vornholt and Sewell stress that creating theater is a collaborative art. Playwrights rely on others—directors, actors, designers—to embody their vision, and until the script is handed off to others to interpret, a playwright really doesn't know if the efforts actually work. That's why an event like this is so important.

Vornholt says that the longest piece in this year's festival lasts about an hour. And these are not full productions. The actors will have scripts in hands, but for the most part elements such as sets and costumes are suggested rather than fully executed.

Shames, who will have an original musical produced by Studio Connections next year, will see her play Wars of the Flesh: Three Wayward Love Stories represented at the festival. It's about "people's yearning for deep connection and how we sabotage that."

She has been "touched and motivated" by the respect with which her colleagues at OPP have treated her work, which has accelerated her development as a playwright. And now the festival is allowing her a chance to learn "my place as a playwright. One quickly learns the collaborative nature of theater—which inevitably entails relinquishing control. I've experienced both moments of panic and of sheer joy." 

And that's even before she hears what you have to say.

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