Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival lets the audience help writers find their voice
Playwrights begin with an idea. They imagine a setting, develop a cast of characters, and write a script. But that’s just the beginning. A director and actors will breathe life into the writer’s words. Only then can a writer get a feel for whether his or her play hits its mark.
That’s where the semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova provides an important service to playwrights and a great opportunity for theatergoers to see an original play in its infancy.
“Playwrights tell us how valuable it is to hear their play read out loud by professional actors in front of an audience,” said Diane Hill, producing artistic director of Theatre Nova, in an email interview. “They can see if what they thought was funny actually receives laughs or if what they thought might be a poignant moment falls flat. They also listen to the audience discussion that follows the reading concerning its positives and negatives which can sometimes lead to script alterations.”
Five new plays by Michigan playwrights will be presented March 6-10 in staged readings at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor.
A reading committee has chosen the five plays: He Said She Said by Skyler Tarnas at 8 pm, Wednesday, March 6; The Moment He Sees Fit by Martin McArthur at 8 pm, Thursday, March 7; The Hero and the Hag by Sean Paraventi at 8 pm, Friday, March 8; Some Assembly Required by Tobias Tieger at 8 pm, Saturday, March 9; and The Curse of the McClures by Kristin Andrea Hanratty at 2 pm, Sunday, March 10.
“Each submission receives at least two readings -- sometimes more if the two scores received are widely different,” said Hill. “This time around we had 40 submissions, and we chose nine plays. Five will be given readings this March and four during the summer festival. The criteria are that the play must never have been produced. Submissions should be full-length, ready to produce scripts. Playwrights may or may not have had their works produced in the past.”
The first festival was held in December 2015. It was organized by Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova’s founding producing artistic director, and playwright and director Emilio Rodriguez to promote Michigan playwrights. Theatre Nova is a professional theater focused on new plays and playwrights.
Hill sent out six scripts to five directors.
“I like the director to choose the play that speaks to them the most -- that they are most passionate about. And the interesting thing is, everyone chose a different script as their one choice,” Hill said.
Rodriguez chose Skylar Tarnas’ He Said She Said.
“I really enjoy political pieces, especially those that are a little quirky and give actors the opportunity to play multiple roles,” Rodriguez said by email. “This is an excited full circle moment for me as I directed Skyler’s 10-minute play during the first Michigan Playwrights Festival which I co-produced in 2015.”
Rodriguez has worked as a director, actor, and artistic director of the Black and Brown Theatre and as a playwright at the Kresge Artists in Detroit. He understands the value of a staged reading for a playwright.
“I know first hand, as a playwright, that it is vital to hear how an audience reacts to the various beats in a scene and to understand where a play drags, where a play pops, and where a play rings true,” Rodriguez said. It’s also helpful to work with the actors because it enables a playwright to hear what mark they have made on the page. Have they created something that others can interpret? How have they created something that communicates all intentions through words? How can they carefully choose each word so it will work in as many venues as possible? How do the words on the page resonate with artistic directors who could potentially produce a piece?
“I think the benefits gained from play festivals like Theatre Nova’s Michigan Playwrights Festival are extremely valuable to writers," Rodriguez said.
Tarnas said his dark comedy is about a television news team that struggles “to navigate and world which is quickly falling into dystopia” and how to cover a powerful sexual predator who has threatened their reporter.
“There’s a very dark undertone to this world they’re living in, and even the silliest-seeming people can be a real threat,” he said in an email. “The genesis for this play came somewhere before the 2016 election when we were seeing all of these speeches and debates and I was getting this crazed feeling, which I can recognize as kind of naive, of ‘but that’s a straight-up lie! You just can’t say that!’ It was horrifying to realize how far we were as a society into mob mentality ruling what we perceived as the truth.”
Tarnas said he wrote the first draft of his play in a class in 2017 and said “it’s been a strangely prophetic play in some ways. ... Besides examining what they expect of public figures, I hope the audience will take the opportunity to think about what neutrality means to them. Is ‘neutrality’ really moral? Is it even possible? Does free speech mean everyone gets a platform? And is it right to act like everything is business as usual when the world is in chaos?”
He said the staged readings are a benefit to a playwright to find out what the writer’s words sound like and what actors can do with them.
“It’s basically like a preview, for everyone, of what a production would look like. It’s much easier to see what works and what doesn’t when you have actors and an audience judging the thing along with you,” he said.
Martin McArthur’s The Moment He Sees Fit is a historical drama about slavery and its consequences. It involves a slave, Benny, and his master, Mr. Sheppard.
“Although Benny and Mr. Sheppard have considered themselves friends, Benny begins to question whether or not they can truly be friends if Mr. Sheppard still owns him,” said McArthur in an email.
He said he was inspired by a character in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.
“In regards to the audience, I hope to move them emotionally as they watch a story unfold that is not completely black and white,” he said. “I hope for them to understand what it means to be an individual and what it means to be free.”
McArthur began writing plays about a year ago in an Intro to Playwriting class at Oakland University. And he’s already benefited from staged readings.
“I have seen several different readings of The Moment He Sees Fit and one thing I learned from them is that there is always room of improvement, whether the problem lies in vagueness of storytelling or it is unclear as to how certain lines should be read,” he said. “When it comes to audience reaction to a staged reading, their reactions can really help in understanding my own play. I can see what lines work and which ones do not. In addition, it provides a tremendous amount of support for the play and it can feel very encouraging.”
A news story inspired Kristin Andrea Hanratty’s The Curse of the McClures.
“A few years ago, I came across a news story on the Lake Michigan Triangle, a legend similar to the Bermuda Triangle, where ships and planes mysteriously vanished over the water without a clear explanation,” she said in an email. “I started thinking how tragedies like that can impact a family for generations to follow. The Curse of the McClures tells the story of three women who feel like their lives have been cursed due to the loss of a family member in this mysterious triangle.”
Brian Cox who chose Hanratty’s play said he found the three female characters compelling.
“The three women are authentic and dynamic and their relationships are complex,” Cox said. “They engaged me immediately. Another reason I chose the play is I appreciated that it is set in Michigan and involves the true and mysterious crash of a commercial airplane over Lake Michigan in 1950, a wreckage that has never been found.”
Hanratty was an attorney with the Legal Aid Society when she began writing plays and stories to reduce the stress of her job. She has had plays produced and finds the staged readings helpful.
“A stage reading is extremely beneficial to the development of a play,” she said by email. “It gives the playwright the opportunity to head dialogue aloud, determine if scenes are correctly paced and the audience feedback is invaluable to know how the play is received. I am very thankful to the director, actors, and audience that give their time to help my play be as successful as possible.”
Cox is directing his third play for the Playwrights’ Festival and he agrees that playwrights can discover what works and what doesn’t in a reading.
“An attentive playwright can suss out points of confusion that may need clarifying and inconsistencies in character motivation or interaction that require tweaking. The playwright can also get a sense of pace and impact. A staged reading can reveal a lot!” Cox said.
Sean Paraventi’s The Hero and the Hag is set in Evanston, Ill., on Halloween. The hero Mark takes a mystical journey and meets a cast of costumed characters who teach him life lessons.
Tobias Tieger’s Some Assembly Required is a play about not saying goodbye. Why is Madeline Munzel trapped in her living room with her ex-husband?
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Tickets for Individual plays are $10, with pay-what-you-can tickets available, Festival passes are $30. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or go to theatrenova.org. Related: "Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival Looks for the Seeds of a Great Play" [Pulp, July 23, 2018]