Where do new plays come from? First, from playwrights' solitary toil. Unlike other writers, however, what they produce on paper doesn't go directly to a reading audience through publication; instead, a script passes to a director, actors and designers, and the playwright revises while the team explores and interprets it for the stage. It takes a village to nurture a new play to full production, and the maturation process can be long, difficult and risky.
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The Philadelphia Theatre Workshop's second annual PlayShop Festival, March 7 to 22, provides that stable community for four local playwrights, inviting audiences to work-in-progress staged readings designed to help the playwrights refine their scripts. "We've been 'PlayShopping' plays since our inception five years ago," says PTW Artistic Director Bill Felty, "giving each playwright a company with which to experiment and play around with their script, on its feet, with audience input."
PTW recently redefined its mission to focus solely on new plays by Philadelphia-area playwrights. The plays — Catherine Rush's The Loudest Man on Earth, Joe Byers' Noori and the Infidels, Lee Colston II's Solitary and Lindsay Harris Friel's Traveling Light — are paired with professional directors, actors and designers, and each will be performed three times over three weekends.
"All the while, they continue rehearsal, rewrites, experimentation and development," Felty explains. "The playwright and/or director of each play decide which area(s) they want audience feedback on, and the exact questions they want asked of the audience."
The process yields tangible results. PTW has produced Felty and Frumi Cohen's musical 50 West 50 and Kathy Anderson's Incoming, and will première Anderson's The Meatpackers Book Club later this spring, all "PlayShopped." Other scripts have reached full production by Philadelphia's Flashpoint Theatre Co., the Brooklyn Arts Exchange and other companies across the country.
"Workshop is really the best way to go," says Catherine Rush, who teaches the Wilma Theater Studio School's advanced playwriting seminar, "but it's not done often because of the expense. Having the time to work through your play and really explore what you have written with a director and actors is a blessing that is afforded very few playwrights." The PTW process, she says, used to occur in rehearsals for a full production, "but that isn't possible now with the rehearsal periods getting shorter and shorter due to financial concerns."
PTW is so committed to its PlayShop process that it's already issued a call for submissions for 2010's festival. PTW is encouraging — along with PlayPenn, the Philadelphia Dramatists Center, the Theatre Alliance and the growing number of local companies producing new plays — a renaissance in new plays by local playwrights.
Where do new plays come from? More and more, from Philadelphia.
PlayShop Festival | March 7-22, $10 per performance, Philadelphia Theatre Workshop at the Shubin Theatre, 407 Bainbridge St., 215-316-1361, philadelphiatheatreworkshop.org.