Theater Being Born

The Old Pueblo Playwrights' annual New Play Festival brings members' works to life

They say writing is a lonely job. Well, consider the plight of the playwright.

One who writes plays is not merely engaged in a solitary endeavor; the playwright labors as an element of a collaborative art form. Theater involves actors, designers, props and physical logistics, including a place to perform. And then there's that most-important element: an audience.

What's a playwright to do?

Well, in Tucson, a playwright can congregate weekly with a bunch of others who are dealing with the same issues. That bunch would be Old Pueblo Playwrights, a nonprofit organization that gives aspiring and experienced playwrights a place to meet, to be heard, and to offer an informed eye on each other's work. And once a year, the group coalesces with other theater types to get several of the members' plays on their feet and reveal them for the first time.

The OPP New Play Festival runs from Thursday, March 22, through Sunday, March 25. For 21 years, the group has offered us an opportunity to grab a front-row seat as the creative process takes a giant leap right into our laps.

"The New Play Festival is the culmination of everything that OPP can do for a playwright," says John Vornholt, this year's festival's chair. "It's the logical extension of the reading and development process we do every week."

A member's play "doesn't automatically qualify," Vornholt says. "It has to go through a gauntlet of readings, critiques and a final vote" of the members before it gets a chance to be part of the festival.

Vornholt explains the process of presenting seven or eight plays over four days, which utilizes 40 or 50 actors.

"They go through a professional audition with monologues, cold readings and callbacks. It's script in hand, so the actors don't have the burden of having to learn lines, although it's surprising how many of the lines they seem to know. The playwright gets to see his play on its feet, with entrances, exits, props, lighting and sound."

Vornholt says that the number of rehearsals is up to the director and playwright, but they probably average around six for a full-length play, and three or four for a one-act. This is in addition to the technical rehearsals, where sound and lights are worked in.

"The audience gets to see something unique, which will never be repeated," he says.

So there's that other critical element: the audience. Here, audience members get to add their two cents. There's a discussion after every play. People can voice their comments, or write them down for the playwrights' later perusal.

"We've built up a following among theatergoers who like to see new plays, which have never been performed anywhere before," Vornholt says. "They're staged readings, which is an interesting intermediary step between a reading around a table and a full production."

Playwright Gavin Kayner has certainly enjoyed the benefits of OPP and its festivals since he joined in 2002. He's seen several of his plays come alive before an audience, and in this year's festival, he has two full-length plays on display: Half-Light, Half-Lives, in which a female teacher is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old boy; and An Indiscretion, a full-length drama about a family's unspoken past.

Longtime Tucsonan Kayner fell in love with theater when he was kid, participating in the old Playbox Theatre. He wrote "tortured poetry" as a young adult, as well as some children's pieces, and he tried a novel. Aware that writing would not pay the bills, he spent 30 years as an elementary school teacher in the Amphitheater School District, and wrote plays for his students to help bring historical events to life.

"The day after I retired, I was writing my first play," Kayner says. "In all the writing I'd done, people kept saying, 'You write really good dialogue.' I actually felt liberated. I thought: I don't have to write, 'The trees are green; the grass is yellow;' I can just get right to the heart of the matter.

"OPP has been a godsend. What a terrific group to be a part of."

The group currently has about 15 members. "There are short-term people, and there are some old-timers, and we have a few more ladies now; for a time, it was pretty guy-heavy," Kayner says.

Kayner has entered numerous playwriting contests, and has received considerable success in being noticed, most recently last year, when he was one of four finalists in the Long Beach Playhouse New Works Festival. The Language of Flowers was performed with professional actors, and Kayner flew out for the event.

"One of the best things about the experience was that they had four critics" watch the show, and each one provided Kayner with "three- or four-page critiques, some of which were embarrassingly generous," he demurs.

Still, getting your work out there is "the hardest part of the whole deal," he says. "You can die before you can get somebody to give it a chance."

Gayner and other OPP playwrights know that the New Play Festival provides an integral—and often hard to come by—part of the playwright's process.

Says Vornholt: "Writing plays is a solitary pursuit, but putting them on is a group effort. That's a lesson every playwright needs to learn."

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