Playwrights need to see their developing plays "on their feet." It's not enough for the play to be given a reading, although readings can be helpful. New plays need a stage, a director, actors who are "off-book," and enough technical embellishment to provide a real sense of how—or if—
the plays actually work. Playwrights—unlike poets and novelists, who can labor alone in their garrets—are collaborators.
Beowulf Alley Theatre is lending its support to developing plays with the "Page on the Stage" event, which happens over the next three weekends. Three new plays authored by Tucson playwrights will be presented to that other critical collaborator—the audience.
Michael Fenlason is the coordinator of this summer's festival, which is in its second year.
"The plays are given almost-full productions—they're not just readings," he explains. "This shows your faults and your strengths almost immediately."
Fenlason says there were more than 40 submissions to choose from for this year's event. "We wanted to choose full-length plays, or at least those that would provide a full evening's worth of entertainment, so that narrowed the field down to 33. I contacted some people from outside Tucson, so there wouldn't be any problems with people knowing people, to read the dozen or so I thought were the best. We looked for plays that offered a fully realized universe, and also ones dealing with different themes, and then I tried to match the plays with directors who would be most appropriate for each piece."
Whitney Morton is directing Icon, by young writer Devin Gorman. "It deals with art, and I studied illustration, so this appealed to me," Morton says. "After her husband hangs himself after he ate a TV dinner, the artist in the play, Eliza, only does paintings of TV dinners. She becomes quite successful, but why? Is it really because of the quality of her art? Or does controversy sell art?"
When asked how working with Morton is going, Gorman says, "I really like her. She actually did all of the paintings you see in the play. It is hard to relinquish control, but I think we've found a good balance. And not only does she bring her ideas, but the actors also offer different perceptions of what's on the page."
Gorman, who majored in creative writing at the UA, is taking off to California in August to study psychology, but she thinks she'll continue to write. "I am very grateful for this opportunity."
Jonathan Northover's You Do Not Want to See This was inspired by work he does with a nonprofit which defends death-row inmates.
"You won't believe some of the things you hear and see. And some of the cringe-worthy moments in the play are very close to actual events," he says. "If we sat down and tried to imagine the weirdest things about death-row inmates and that whole process, they wouldn't be as weird as the stuff that actually happens."
An attorney from England who has been here for seven years, this is the third play he's written, and the second to be workshopped. His A Work of Art was featured in Beowulf's POTS event last summer.
"I broke the rules about keeping it simple and writing what you know, and it made my life very difficult," Northover says about A Work of Art. "So for this one, I did write about something I know. ... I've been there in and amongst the chaos of it, and the ridiculousness of it and the darkness of the system here.
"The 'Page on the Stage' is a really interesting process. You have to adjust expectations. The most valuable thing I learned last year was: When you write something, get it on its feet as soon as possible, with some good people, and only then will you start learning whether your writing works or not."
Gavin Kayner's work-in-progress is called Stephen's Syndrome.
"It's a black comedy about a man in his 20s who has a disease—it would be similar to what is actually known as Williams syndrome—who's a very quirky guy. He's unattractive and very talkative, and he ends up kidnapping a girl in a wheelchair and holds her hostage. It's really about loneliness, and how devastating it can be."
Kayner had one of his 14 full-length plays in last year's POTS event. A retired teacher who started writing plays to illustrate lessons for his elementary-school students, Kayner recently saw his The Language of Flowers read at Long Beach Playhouse. "I was nervous as a cat in a violin factory, but it went beautifully."
John Vornholt (an occasional Weekly contributor) is directing Kayner's play. He's known Kayner for four years; they met as members of Old Pueblo Playwrights, another group devoted to helping playwrights develop their material. Vornholt, who has had a career writing science-fiction novels, finds the POTS process quite exciting. "The play is not set in stone. You can turn to the playwright to ask about something. You're having an opportunity to mold a play. We all learn so much."
All of the playwrights have already made changes to their scripts, and after each show, they will be present to talk with the audience—which might lead to more rewrites.
Fenlason says, "This does attract perhaps a more adventurous audience, but these are smart writers talking about interesting things in ways never seen before. This could be the first step to becoming a great play—and you saw it first."