Each summer for the past 20 years—but not this past summer, of course—theatre artists have descended on the small mountain town of McCall, Idaho, to develop new plays at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Lest that sound like the intrusion of an invading army, what really happens is that the town opens its arms and warmly welcomes playwrights, actors, directors, dramaturgs, stage managers, and staff members from across the United States. For two weeks, these theatre folk have gathered nightly at the Bistro 45 local watering hole, taking a break after daylong rehearsals and rewrites, before heading back to the homes of community members who are housing them.
Upon arrival, newcomers are told to wear their name badges at all times. Participants quickly realize the benefits of this clear identification, both in terms of discounts from local merchants and in less concrete ways—in greetings from passersby on the street, the same folks who will likely be attending readings of the plays at the Alpine Playhouse, a converted church just a few hundred yards from sparkling Payette Lake that has served as a community theatre and artistic gathering spot since 1966.
The first Conference, in 2001, was a collaborative effort between id Theatre (an Idaho/NYC company founded by Sheila McDevitt and her husband Simon Brooking in 1997), and two alums of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference: playwright Jeni Mahoney (1997) and stage manager Paula Marchiel (1998-99). All four lived in New York City, but McDevitt and Mahoney had strong ties and family properties in Idaho.
The seeds of Seven Devils were planted in 2000, as Mahoney sat on her porch in McCall. She’d been selected as a finalist for the O’Neill, but with the conference just days away, she was still awaiting an answer about her spot. “The anxiety was killing me,” says Mahoney, “So I called them and told them to just reject me, and thought, I’m here in this beautiful place, what am I waiting for?”
At the same time, id Theatre was interested in connecting with new playwrights, so the idea of developing work seemed like a no-brainer. When they learned that a local drama teacher offered a playwriting class, they offered to develop the students’ work. The board of the Alpine Playhouse offered to donate their theatre for the Conference, calling it “a gift to the community.”
Recalled Mahoney, “We wanted the ability to be in the room with high-powered, super-talented people, but without the pressures and expectations that come with production. So the risks you’re taking are all the good, creative risks with people who are there just for you. The O’Neill was where I’d learned how to be empowered as a playwright, to claim a work as mine, and to find what was important to me about it. I’d learned how I wanted to be treated in the room.”
The Seven Devils Conference became an annual project of id Theatre, with Mahoney and McDevitt serving as co-artistic directors and Marchiel as managing director. Though McDevitt has since stepped down from her position, she remains involved as an artist in multiple capacities. In early 2020 the company changed its name to Seven Devils New Play Foundry, with Mahoney as producing artistic director and Marchiel continuing in her post. Production manager Ed Baker and literary manager A.P. Andrews round out the small but dedicated team who make the conference possible.
For years Seven Devils’ remote location made it something of a closely held secret. Many in the national community are only vaguely aware of the conference, but those who have attended can attest strongly to its power and influence on their writing. Eric Coble’s Broadway-bound The Velocity of Autumn and Sam Hunter’s award-winning The Whale were both developed at there. Through its various programs, Seven Devils has developed more than 250 new plays by Pulitzer winners, emerging talents, high school students, and everything in between.
“The first time I was invited to be a playwright at Seven Devils,” said Heidi Kraay, “I was relatively young in my playwriting career and floored by the experience of me and my work being the center of attention. For the first time, I felt like my work might matter. I’m grateful to this company for a number of reasons, like being better able to ask intentional questions about my work before taking it through a development process with others, or being able to lock a draft safely away and then play to my imagination’s content. Learning to trust my words on the page helps me stand stronger as a playwright—and keep working in this art form.”
In a normal year, the conference begins with an all-hands meeting at the 100-seat Alpine Playhouse, where Mahoney would stress that all the work in the coming weeks is in service of the plays and playwrights. As it this is designed to be a development conference, the readings are merely part of a process, not an end in and of themselves. Readings are typically staged with scripts in hand, with props and stage painted gray to encourage the audience to listen to the words, watch the action, and engage their imaginations.
As someone who has attended myself, the two-week conference is full of non-stop intensity, with new pages and new drafts generated almost every day. Each play receives one week of rehearsal time, with a single company of actors, directors, dramaturgs, and stage managers who work on a different play each week. The traditional mid-conference trip to Burgdorf Hot Springs, 30 miles deeper into the Rockies, provides a much-needed break and bonding period.
The all-encompassing experience pushes a deep engagement with the work, with the people involved in the shaping of the script, and with the town. The evening readings at the Alpine Playhouse are free and typically packed with many audience members who come to conference readings year after year. Post-performance discussions are carefully moderated; Mahoney reminds audiences that the writer is interested in their impressions but not their suggestions for rewrites. The playwright is asked to listen silently—while wearing big, dark sunglasses.
This past June, thanks to COVID-19, the 20th anniversary of the conference was forced to be virtual, with participants gathering across the U.S. via Zoom calls. When the closures started, Seven Devils wasn’t sure they could even hold a conference. By mid-April, Marchiel explained, “We knew there was no way we could have 100 people in a theatre in June, and changed to asking, well, what can we do?” This led to an intense scramble to figure out the logistics of online play development for eight plays and 60 theatre artists, plus another 10 artists and mentors working with high school students in McCall.
With the magic of theatre (e.g., long hours and intense work), it all came together, with three play readings presented June 18-20. One of the key features of the conference, the design meetings, were held virtually with designer G.W. “Skip” Mercier and design fellow Jay Tyson, and the designers and playwrights, engaged in deep conversations about the worlds of the plays. Rehearsals were shorter and less frequent than at the in-person conference, but serious script work was accomplished. The readings, with playwrights wearing those big black shades, were Zoom webinars at full capacity.
Matt Pelfrey, one of this year’s playwrights, was enthusiastic about his experience with his play, The Alligator Gospels. “Even on Zoom,” Pelfrey said, “I had access to a team of really smart and passionate theatremakers who cared as much as I did about exploring my play and making it as good as it could be. They encouraged me to take risks, reminding me that I could always return to the old draft if any experiments I took with the play didn’t work out. This encouragement to be fearless helped me see outside of whatever blinders I might have had about what my play ‘should be.’ I left the conference with a better play than I started with. What’s better than that?”
Though it was clear that there was no replacement for the all-encompassing experience of the conference in McCall, new plays managed to bloom and grow over the course of the weeks. Writers and directors and actors built relationships with the potential to continue. The indomitable spirit of Seven Devils came through the screens, thanks to the warmth, commitment, and vision of the staff. Hopefully next year, participants will find themselves in Idaho, soaking away the intensity of the week at the hot springs. Either way, Seven Devils will be there to help develop new plays.
Patrick Gabridge is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, and novelist, and is producing artistic director of Plays in Place, a company specializing in creating site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites. His plays Drift and Flight were both developed with Seven Devils