COSTA MESA, CALIF.: Noah Haidle plays favorites. Though he appreciates the support he’s received from every theatre he’s worked with throughout his career, he’s unabashed about the one that stands out: South Coast Repertory.
“I’ve had a little success in Chicago, New York, other places, but no one has embraced me like here,” said Haidl, one of seven writers featured in SCR’s 19th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, which ran April 22–24. “I mean, my photo is hanging in the bar!”
Last weekend was Haidle’s fourth presentation at PPF; his three previous outings led to full productions. This year’s entry, A Perfect Circle, is a dark comedy about a father and son slowly coming to grips with the death of the family’s wife/mother, and their conflicting feelings toward each other.
SCR has long demonstrated a commitment to new work, both in terms of world premiere productions and cultivating writers who have gone on to work elsewhere. And PPF is just one arm of the theatre’s prodigious developmental reach: It also commissions writers (about 50 currently, most granted the past five years), holds in-house one-day readings and workshops, and presents a NewScripts series where plays are read in front of a paid audience.
But PPF is the theatre’s crown jewel in terms of new-play development, bringing industry professionals from across the country and local patrons who have grown to understand that a staged reading is a critical part of the playwriting process. But while both segments of that audience are important, this is primarily a festival for writers to hear their work out loud, as well as the work of their colleagues.
“So much of a playwright’s work is done in isolation,” said Kemp Powers, whose play Little Black Shadows, was part of this year’s festival. “When you’re working on some new idea that feels like it might be too out there to find an audience, it’s really encouraging to be thrown together with other writers grasping with ideas that are every bit as out of left field as your own.” Little Black Shadows, set during the Civil War, focuses on a family with two white children and their two similarly aged African-American slaves.
Along with readings of Powers and Haidle’s plays, the festival included full productions of Eliza Clark’s Future Thinking and Julia Cho’s Office Hour (starring Sandra Oh), as well as readings of Rachel Bonds’s Curve of Departure, Meg Miroshnik’s Lady Tattoo, and Jen Silverman’s Wink. Clark’s and Cho’s plays were both SCR commissions, as were two of the remaining five pieces in the festival (Bonds’s and Miroshnik’s).
“We have always tried to have a mix of plays that were home-grown here and plays that came to us through other avenues, and sometimes even plays that belonged to other theatres that we were interested in,” said John Glore, SCR’s associate artistic director and codirector of PPF. “That’s where some of the coproductions happen: A theatre that has commissioned a work is willing to let us develop it, and then that partnership moves forward to a partnership for a production as well.”
PPF launched in 1998, at a time when there was a void in the Southern California theatre landscape for new work. The Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects had folded in 1993, followed two years later by the Padua Playwrights Festival. Jerry Patch, SCR’s longtime dramaturg, had run a new-work festival at the Sundance Theater Laboratory until 1997 and thought it was time to launch something similar at SCR. But there was also a more self-interested reason.
“When ASK Theatre Projects—the main play development organization in the Los Angeles area—folded, then a couple of others folded, I think Jerry [and SCR cofounders Martin Benson and David Emmes] realized there wasn’t much happening locally any longer,” said Glore. “Plus, they also felt that [SCR] had done all this play development and production of new work, but it didn’t get a lot of attention outside the area. So the idea was, let’s find a way to put more of a spotlight on it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. PPF will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017. And while the festival has included as many as 10 plays in its lineup over the years, it gradually settled on 7. And of the nearly 140 plays read, all but a handful have gone on to full productions, at either SCR or elsewhere.
“It has evolved gradually,” said Glore. “It’s not radically different from what it was. But more people come from around the country and locally. We used to do readings in the Argyros theatre [a 336-seat space] with seats to spare but now everything’s in the Segerstrom [the 507-seat mainstage].”
In fact, demand is so high that occasionally a play gets multiple readings just to accommodate more people. This year Jen Silverman’s Wink was given four readings in the 94-seat Nicolas Studio, which was the better setting for the intense, Ionesco-esque play about marital strife and a skinned cat taking on human form and voice. All four readings were sold out.
While Glore doesn’t program the festival toward a certain theme, after the fact he did notice a common thread among many of the works.
“As I was watching Meg’s play [Lady Tattoo], I was struck by the fact that four of the five readings and both plays in production deal with relationships between parents and children, especially adult children,” he mused, calling Wink the sole exception. Otherwise, he said, the recurring themes included “parental responsibilities and the way we live up to them or fail them, the effects we have on our children, often completely unintended—and, from the other perspective, the lenses through which we look at our parents as they age and become different people from the ones we thought we knew when we were children.”
What makes PPF unique? For starters, its location. Compared to a festival like the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, which is located far closer to big cities in the East, the SoCal festival is smaller and the vibe mellower.
“[PPF] is a lot more easygoing,” Glore admitted. “Partly because it’s smaller but also the cliché of California being more laid-back. The vibe at Humana is more of a marketplace vibe. They get many, many more people from all over the world, and invite critics, and there’s more of a competition to get the play. But here, since five of the seven plays are in reading form, I think people come here knowing that if they absolutely fall in love with a play, they have a real chance of premiering it in their own theatre, and that is a draw.”
This year boasted dozens of representatives from theatrical powerhouses across the country, including Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Playwrights Horizon and Roundabout Theatre in New York City, and Seattle Repertory. One of them was Clare Drobot, the director of new play development at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre.
“I am familiar with the body of all the writers’ work, but I haven’t read any of the scripts,” Drobot said. But when it comes to new-play shopping at a festival like PPF, she said she prefers not to know in advance. “When you’re hearing it for the first time, rather than reading it, it’s a different experience. You definitely look for things, like subject matter that will connect with your audience and also practical concerns, like technical requirements and casting size. But I really try to let it wash it over me, because if I try to figure out early on while seeing it, it takes away from the experience.”
Along with the seven playwrights who were part of this year’s festival, some 50 other writers attended, including Rachel Campbell, a Los Angeles–based playwright. For her, PPF is an insider look into the laborious process of playwriting, its highs and lows.
“I heard a reading of [Noah Haidle’s] Smokefall [at PPF 2013] and thought, ‘That’s the kind of play I want to write,'” she recalled. But on the flip side, “If you’re familiar with a writer’s work, sometimes you’ll hear something and think, ‘Oh, no, you’re better than that.’”
While getting plays produced is obviously a large goal of the PPF, so is connecting with the larger theatre community, from artistic directors to other playwrights. To Glore, the festival helps maintain what he calls, the “ecology of theatre.”
“I think everybody who involved in theatre—from people like me, who helps run one, to those who review plays, to donors who support the work—are part of the ecology and do something to contribute to it,” he said. “I think because there isn’t that level of competition at our festival, the playwrights seem to bond really well. They are fellow travelers. Of course they all want their own plays to do well, and to get it produced here or somewhere, but there’s also a lot of mutual support.”
Joel Beers is an Orange County–based freelance journalist and an adjunct communications professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills. He has been theatre critic of the Orange County Weekly since that infernal rag’s first issue in 1995.