If you take the best parts of all the play festivals I’ve worked on, you might get a sense of the newest. The South Carolina New Play Festival (SNPF) is a surprising blend of what came before, and a welcome start to a new new-play festival after a time when all we’ve heard about were festival postponements and closings (see: The Lark, Sundance, the Humana Festival).
Shelley Butler and West Hyler started SNPF in Greenville, S.C., and it had its inaugural run Aug. 12-14. Shelley, the artistic director, is a collaborator I’ve worked with frequently, so I wasn’t shocked to get a call from West, the festival’s executive artistic director, to dramaturg for the festival. However, I was surprised to be asked to dramaturg all four readings. Was that even possible?
West and I talked through the festival and the scheduling; the breadth of programming seemed to make it viable, and I was sympathetic to the economics of starting up a festival from scratch and needing to stretch the resources. Frankly, many producers would skip hiring any dramaturgs at all. There were two straight plays, one musical, and one play for young audiences. One of the plays, Dodi & Diana by Kareem Fahmy, I’d already been working on. The musical, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, would be primarily pre- and post-festival work, as the bulk of rehearsal time would be dedicated to actors learning music. Like most TYA pieces, Dragonsoul Offline by Samantha Miller had the virtue of being shorter. And Kate Hamill, playwright for The Scarlet Letter, would be away on her honeymoon, so other than attending the first read-through, I could focus my time on the rehearsals that were making more script changes. Taking a deep breath, I agreed to give it a whirl.
Having lived in Louisville, I found August in Greenville to be not nearly the sweaty swamp weather I had feared when I arrived. I’d had great advance meetings with the playwrights—haven’t we all gotten adept at forming relationships on Zoom?—and this initially felt like a super-sized version of the job I’d done countless times before, i.e., dramaturg for a reading of a new play as part of a festival.
Still, from the start, this felt a little different. It wasn’t my first in-person new-play festival post-pandemic (I’d produced the Her Words festival at Soulpepper in Toronto in October 2021, and worked as a dramaturg at the Denver New Play Summit in February 2022), but the inaugural year of anything has a special sense of excitement: Is this for real? How does this work? How is it the same or different from the others?
West and Shelley had spent months meeting with the arts leaders and supporters of Greenville to create a city-wide event. Most of the new-play festivals I’d worked on had been housed in (and produced by) a single year-round theatrical institution, but SNPF was different. As West put it, “When Shelley and I discovered Greenville, and realized the city had six performing arts venues all located downtown on Main Street within a mile of each other, we knew it was the perfect place to produce a city-wide new play festival.” So the festival was taking place at five different venues across town, who’d all agreed to donate space and share resources. I can’t imagine the herculean effort it took to find a week in the calendar where all five companies (the Peace Center, with two spaces, along with the Warehouse, South Carolina Children’s Theatre, Greenville Theatre, and Centre Stage) had space to donate to a start-up effort. But they did it, and people at every theatre went out of their way to tell me how thrilled they were that this festival was happening. Dramaturg hot tip: Striking up lobby conversations can often prove useful!
It helped that the festival set out to be a blend of local and national talent. Unlike the Humana Festival, which used to rely mainly on out-of-town actors, or the Pacific Playwrights Festival, which relies on local Southern California actors, SNPF was exactly half and half; out of a full festival cast of 24, 12 actors were local and 12 from out of town. This balanced proportion felt seamless as I walked back and forth across Greenville to the various rehearsals and saw unified ensembles in all the different theatres.
Another tenet of the festival is accessibility, and SNPF offered free reserved tickets to all the readings. There were paid events: two classes and a closing night Broadway cabaret with Kelli Barrett and Jarrod Spector, and guaranteed seats for donors. But of the 1,300 tickets, over 75 percent were free and available to the public. All events were remarkably well attended; as a producer, I can tell you that performances with free admission often have a 35-50 percent no-show rate. I reminded West of this fact frequently through the week as he worried about events selling out. It turned out he was right to be concerned: For SNPF readings, the attrition rate overall was a mere 12 percent, and the waiting lists easily covered that difference to create enthusiastic full houses. I did a little digging to figure out why.
Greenville, which has a population of around 70,000, is clearly very proud of its arts community—one SNPF board member proudly declared to me that Greenville has more live performing arts stages than movie theatres. The small downtown area boasts art galleries, cute shops, a nightclub, a couple of comedy bars, and a scavenger hunt to find the hidden mice sculptures. Public art lines the street, and more than half of the store windows boast theatre posters advertising upcoming productions (and not just SNPF).
I learned that Greenville also has a penchant for festivals. Artisphere is a Greenville festival in May that features hundreds of artists. There’s the Euphoria food and wine festival, which aims to give visitors a “taste of all the things that make the Upstate so enchanting,” and which takes a similar approach to SNPF by bringing in culinary talent from New York and L.A. to pair with local chefs and restaurants. Fall for Greenville pairs food with music. Indie Craft Parade, the Greenville Country Music Fest, and the Craft Beer Festival are just a few more examples of ways the town clearly revels in its impressive population growth over the past few years. With all its stages, a theatre festival almost seems inevitable.
There’s a little bit of magic in being at the right time and the right place, and the Upstate (the region in the westernmost part of South Carolina) was ripe for a performing arts-oriented festival as an answer to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Travis Ballenger, a producer with Lia Vollack Productions and native to the area, was excited enough to make the trip out when he heard about it, and was moved by the festival and its potential for the future. He told me, “The South Carolina New Play Festival brought to the South some of the most exciting theatre artists we have. Greenville, S.C., has always valued the arts immensely, and to match that passion with the national reach of SNPF is the work arts organizations should do.”
In the adorable swag bags that SNPF put together for the artists was a T-shirt from local designer Billiam Jeans which says, “Leave Brooklyn, move to Greenville.” I believe anyone who wasn’t local was tempted by the idea.
The partnerships with other organizations made a difference to me too. Before the last reading, I attended a meeting with Dr. Gail Wilson Awan, SNPF board member and CEO of the Urban League, to discuss their potential funding of the festival’s first commission, and was amazed at her investment in not only funding but discussing why and how that partnership could serve both the community and the artist. It was clear not only that Greenville supports the arts and artists, but that they also support locals. If SNPF was to commission an artist to tell their stories, Wilson Awan argued, it had to be done in a way that would invest in the community, not just investigate the community.
Even though the festival was produced on the same shoestring of limited resources and constraints we are all working under, I never felt any hint of scarcity. In the end, what made it special for me was the very way in which it embraced diversity in all its forms. Not only was it both local and national artists, but it also employed 50 percent actors of color; the SNPF board is 30 percent people of color. Some artists had impressive, lengthy résumés; some were quite green. I roamed the lobbies before and after the shows, striking up conversations and eavesdropping, and found audiences to be a mix of arts enthusiasts, some who’d never attended a play reading before and others who were veterans of the form. Now that we’ve proven the concept, I hope to see my industry friends from the new-play festival circuit there next year. The mix of musicals, straight plays, TYAs, and cabarets felt unlike any similar festival I’d attended or worked on previously. I’m already looking forward to next year’s SNPF, slated for August 10-13, 2023.
The way the South Carolina New Play Festival took over the city of Greenville with presentations at six different theatres felt like a miniature version of Edinburgh Fringe, and reminded me of an adage I can’t stop repeating to myself and other theatre professionals out there: A rising tide lifts all boats.
Kimberly Colburn (she/her) is is the producer of new work at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, was previously literary director of South Coast Rep, where she was co-director of PPF and led the theatre’s CrossRoads initiative. Prior to that she literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville. She has dramaturged and produced dozens of productions, workshops and readings. www.theatrekimberly.com
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