Pacific Playwrights Festival 2016

I recently attended the Pacific Playwrights Festival in Southern California where I saw five play readings and 2 world premiere productions over three days.  I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy play readings so much.  There are no production values – just actors with scripts at music stands on a blank stage (or a set meant for another play), a few days of rehearsals with a director, and probably script changes from the playwright up to the last minute.  Yet there is something about an exceptionally well-done play reading that can be just as satisfying as a well-done production.  The words, the actors and your imagination have to supply the details.  You can really focus on the language.

Playwrights Jen Silverman, Kemp Powers,  Meg Miroshnik, Noah Haidle, Rachel Bonds

Playwrights Jen Silverman, Kemp Powers,
Meg Miroshnik, Noah Haidle, Rachel Bonds

The readings filled the 500-seat theatre to capacity and I would tend to sit at the back where I could sometimes see the audience start back in their seats or lean in en masse.  At the end of the reading of Curve of Departure by Rachel Bonds, the entire audience was on its feet in one motion, without hesitation, as if it didn’t even know how it got there.  This wonderful play is so full of things to think and feel and talk about.  It is set entirely in a hotel room shared by 4 people – an octogenarian, his daughter-in law, her son and his lover — the night before the funeral of their respective son/ex-husband/father.  The play risks sounding overstuffed (which it is not!) if I tell you that it touches, in varying degrees, on right to die preferences, inter-racial families,  gay adoption, family dysfunction, the best of family connection, bad choices and good choices.  It was brilliant.

One of the nice things about holding a new play festival in Southern California is the access to great actors.

Allan Miller

Allan Miller

Many well-known faces and extremely talented actors were involved in the readings.  I was lucky enough to have dinner one night next to one, Allan Miller, and his awesome wife, Laura Zucker (Executive Director of the L.A. Arts Commission).  Allan Miller’s performance in the reading of Curve of Departure was so good it was clear why you recognize his face from his many years of film and television performances.

The reading of a play called Little Black Shadows by Kemp Powers left me stunned.  Set in the 1850s in the “Big House” on a cotton plantation, the six characters in this play are the plantation owning family – father, mother, son and daughter (12 year old twins), and the two 12-year old boy and girl slaves who “shadow” their child owners.

 ”Toy and Colis are children; so are the masters they silently serve on a Georgia cotton plantation. Only at night do the young slaves come alive, to tell stories and dream by the light of fireflies. But their world is about to change forever. Do they dare to come out of the shadows? “

Chauntae Pink and Giovanni Adams reading Toy and Colis in "Little Black Shadows" by Kemp Powers

Chauntae Pink and Giovanni Adams reading Toy and Colis in “Little Black Shadows” by Kemp Powers

In the Playwrights Panel on the last morning of the Festival, Kemp Powers said he had wanted to write a family drama in that time and setting that wasn’t about slavery; where slavery was part of that reality.  He said, “I don’t take lightly the idea of asking a black actor to play a slave.”  When asked by the actor how to approach one of those roles, he replied “think about day by day, hour by hour, you don’t speak; think of yourself as a dog who heels.”  With a bit of a groan, he told us: “I’m done with the slavery bit for a while.”  It is an extremely good play.

One playwright, Meg Miroshnikdelivered a new draft of her play, Lady Tattoo, the day before rehearsals for the reading began but just 5 days after giving birth to her new son, Jacob, with a note saying her “mother would care for him during rehearsals so she didn’t think [his having been born then] would be too much of a distraction since he was at the eating/sleeping blob stage.”  True dedication.  (Personally, I’m grateful.  Her play, set in 1912 New York, about lady tattoos and other even more significant things, was fun and totally unexpected.)

The other readings were Wink by Jen Silverman, a look at what is under the things said out loud, as told through an absurdist tale of a couple, their mutual therapist and a skinned cat (with great wit and an interesting repeat structure), and A Perfect Circle by Noah Haidle, a “backyard play” described by SCR as “Heartbreak with a twist of Haidle.”

In the evenings. we saw two fully produced world premieres: Office Hour by Julia Cho,  and Future Thinking by Eliza Clark.  As different from each other as possible  – one dark and intense, one funny with an underlying pathos — both were terrific.

The Festival was seamlessly and expertly put together and co-hosted by John Glore, Associate Artistic Director of South Coast Repertory and Kimberly Colburn, Literary ​Director. I was able to talk to many playwrights and other theatre artists, see old friends, make a few new ones, and see many hours of good theatre.   If the quality of the work, the program, the company and the weather all stay this good, I’m going every year!

Raymond Lee and Sandra Oh in South Coast Repertory's 2016 world premiere of Office Hour by Julia Cho.  Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.

Raymond Lee and Sandra Oh in South Coast Repertory’s 2016 world premiere of Office Hour by Julia Cho.
Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.


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