Flip the script

Flip the script

FutureFest offers six new plays in three days 

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: Scott Knisley and Wendi Michael rehearse for “Wash, Dry, Fold”; photo: Serif Cinar

It’s the best time I have all year,” double-finalist playwright M. J. Feely said of the intense FutureFest weekend, during which Dayton Playhouse produces six new plays. He, like others who come for FutureFest, expressed great admiration for the effectiveness and importance of promoting creativity regionally with new play scripts.

“There is an explosion of talent in Dayton,” the California-based Feely said. And Feely knows a bit about talent; he returns this year as a finalist for the fifth time.

Adjudicator Roger Danforth of New York said he is bowled over by the spirit, enthusiasm and dedication of the Dayton Playhouse volunteers who work all year to make the festival happen. “New plays are the lifeblood of the theatre,” Danforth, the artistic director for the prestigious, nearly 100-year-old New York Drama League, said. 

FutureFest audiences – many who have been faithful to the event for two decades – seem to form an endurance bond. One longtime patron said, “I think we ought to get a medal by the time we’ve seen six plays and make it to Sunday afternoon.” 

“Every year it’s like a family reunion, with new kin being welcomed home,” Executive Director Fran Pesch added.

Weekend passes cost $95, including a reserved seat to six plays, adjudication sessions and social activities, including food. Individual tickets are $18 each. Playgoers reflect how easy it is to mingle and talk casually with playwrights and adjudicators. Each play is followed by the adjudicators’ structured comments and an audience Q-and-A. Several of the returning professionals say they used to be surprised at how savvy, sophisticated and warm Dayton’s audiences are. Now, they look forward to the conversations. Playwrights treasure the exchanges as being most helpful in furthering their scripts. 

Some playwrights support each other on social media and find being a FutureFest finalist elicits many positive responses about the Dayton Playhouse and local audiences.

How it works

This year, 151 eligible scripts were submitted by playwrights from all over the country. Each is blind-read and scored by three different selection committee members. A dozen or so readers begin in September, read and score about 50 scripts each and select 12 semi-finalists. Three other readers make the final selection, narrowing the pool to six finalists.

This blind system yielded interesting statistics for the current finalists. M. J. Feely has won two places in the six slots. Three of the remaining finalists are women; two of them have the same last name – Roberts. Last year all six winners were male.

Last year, for the first time ever, the FutureFest competition ended in a tie. The final selection, decided by the professional adjudicators, was startling to the Dayton Playhouse officials who were not at all prepared to award two prizes, but did. Although by the end of the weekend all identities are known, it was a tribute to the earnest efforts of the judges their numeric grading system reflected their equal regard for the two eventual winners. 

One winner was a serious historic drama, “The King’s Face” by Stephen Young. The other: a can’t-quit-laughing comedy, “A Position of Relative Importance” by Dan Borden.

The 2014 slate will present three fully-staged plays; with dialogue memorized, complete sets and production values. 

The other three scripts will be staged readings only, with actors mostly seated and reading. All have the same time to rehearse with individual directors. Historically, prize-winners have been about equally divided between readings and fully-staged scripts.

Good plays have conflict, revelations, resolution and memorable characters. This year’s selections give good measure of all the necessary components … and more. 

What to see

Opening night, Friday, July 25, 8 p.m. “The Paymaster” by M.J. Feely

Directed by Saul Caplan 

Fully-Staged

Feely – who actually grew up in Dayton – graduated from Bishop Alter High School. His family is very proud of their Irish heritage, and this play is roughly based on an old family legend. Set in 1916-17 on the south side of Chicago, it is the story of Michael Gallagher and his wife Nellie, who have had more to do with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and gunrunning than is apparent, while using the cover of building a contracting business and starting a family. When brother Padraig appears one night, the plot thickens. 

Caplan has directed Feely’s previous FutureFest plays in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2013. 

“Michael’s research is always impeccable and he’s interested in some of my favorites; history, politics and theatre,” Caplan said. “This story of the Irish uprising may be the most riveting yet.”

Saturday, July 26, 10 a.m. “The Killing Jar” by Jennifer Lynne Roberts 

Directed by Kathy Mola 

Staged Reading

A young artist, Ava, has a chance to curate an exhibit by an established painter, Jefford. She goes to his home in the Philippines, hoping to convince him to engage her to select some of his work for a 1964 New York World’s Fair exhibit. It is a rare opportunity for her in the male-dominated field of the time. Finding an alcoholic womanizer and plenty of challenges, she’s not at all sure she’s found her hoped-for mentor. 

“Both characters have to break free from their bonds of circumstance and convention, holding them like a killing jar smothering a captured insect,” Roberts explained.

“I purposely did not talk to the playwright so I could best bring to FutureFest an original interpretation for this new work, keeping in mind the different world the mid-1960s was for women,” Mola added.

Saturday, July 26, 3 p.m. “Wash, Dry, Fold” by Nedra Pezold Roberts

Directed by Teresa High 

Staged Reading

The scene is New Orleans in a failing laundromat. Characters reflect two sisters’ opposing perspectives: Trudy, who served time for killing her no-account husband and Enola, a religious fanatic, are stuck with each other and are trying to deal with the inherited business. They bicker, but fail to hear each other. Add Uncle Slackjaw suffering from PTSD as a result of Vietnam War experiences, and Arlene, a mysterious tattoo artist. Their guilt-inducing secrets and the dynamics explode. 

“New Orleans, where I grew up, just seeps into your pores forever,” playwright Nedra Pezold Roberts explained. “Magazine Street, the scene of the play, is a funky combination of banks and dives and odd shops in between; wonderful contrasts of places and people.” 

Director Teresa High, an experienced theatre person, but new to FutureFest, is very enthusiastic and excited about new scripts, her particular favorite focus. “I take very seriously the responsibility of being the first to bring a voice to new works,” she said. “It is so important to the playwright.”

Saturday, July 26, 8 p.m. “The Humanist” by Kuros Charney

Directed by Jim Lockwood 

Fully-Staged

What happens when art reflects life as many experience it today? Will Ted, the idealist humanities professor, and his department fall victim to the needs of the bottom line when his small state university gets an income-focused new president? She’s his ex-girlfriend, now married to a computer developer (Ted’s college best friend), who wants to turn the academic emphasis to business. Add an idealistic confrontive Muslim student. Where and when will the problems and the conflicting values explode? 

“I knew I had to embody in dramatic form that good citizens in a democracy must have a complete education, at all levels,” Playwright Kuros Charney, who was inspired by a book supporting the humanities, said. “Studying arts and culture leads to needed understanding in a diverse society.”

Director Jim Lockwood, for whom this will be the 50th show he’s directed, said, “When I read the script, I could hear the voices, and I’m eager to bring them to life.”

Sunday, July 27, 10 a.m. “Masterwork” by M.J. Feely

Directed by Fran Pesch 

Staged Reading

“Write what you know” – that oft-given advice has paid off for this prolific playwright. Feely acknowledges he’s had a health scare moment, although not at all the same problem as the main character in his play. His imagined writer is given a terminal diagnosis at just the moment he has a brilliant idea for a play – the best ever. It becomes a race against the clock. Exactly what is the masterwork: man or manuscript?

Fran Pesch dons her director’s cap and said, “I directed the very first FutureFest play, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a Feely script. It’s a well written play.”

Sunday, July 27, 3 p.m. “Sugarhill” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage

Directed by Debra Kent 

Fully-Staged

Characters live complicated lives, often unknowingly influenced by history in a fictional Louisiana coastal town: Sugarhill in 1941. A woman who apparently attempted suicide is dealing with the death of her young son, her husband silent in a wheel chair and living with her Civil War veteran grandfather and his nurse. The appearance of “a dark-skinned” man brings hope, despite Jim Crow laws of the state at the time. 

“I was inspired by something I heard on NPR, and then the whole play just came to me, a whole piece. Like magic!” playwright Linda Ramsay-Detherage said. 

“I love this script because it’s character rich,” director Debra Kent added. “And there is a bit of magic to it.”

Meet the adjudicators

Roger Danforth and David Finkle believe regional strength is essential for developing actors and plays and knowledgeable audiences. Finkle writes for the Village Voice and Huffington Post. Both are from New York, as are Helen Sneed and Eleanore Speert. Each has experience at Dramatists Play Service and at the Drama Bookshop, and many other credits. They say they value what happens here: creating a pipeline for talent.

“At FutureFest, I see such dedicated people,” Speert said. “I hope they know how much they are appreciated.” 

“The New York stage could not function without the kind of experience and training ground provided here,” Sneed added.

Faye Sholiton, 1997 FutureFest winner for “The Interview” spoke to the FutureFest process.

“That experience was life altering for me,” Sholiton said. 

She’s active in Cleveland theatre, producing, writing and teaching. She added, “I appreciate the New York networking and friendships FutureFest brings.” 

The adjudicators receive the scripts a few weeks before the event.

Forty percent of their judgment is based on an evaluation of the script. The remaining 60 percent is based on how the words, the characters, the plot development and the intangibles transfer from page to stage for each play – in other words, how the script plays.

Actors and directors are not judged, but their skill is often acknowledged. They join the adjudicators and the playwright on stage. Each critic speaks on one criterion. They rotate topics: Theme/Dramatic Concept; Style/Language; Story/Plot; Character Development/Dialogue; Page to Stage; Next Stage. It’s helpful, nerve-wracking and stimulating for all, but most appreciated by the writers. The adjudicators are earnest and serious. After the last play, they gather privately and total the numbers for their mutual decision.

After a short dinner break, all return to the theatre; acknowledgements and praise are finally followed by the big announcement. Then, there’s a little time to breathe free for a moment before the 2015 competition begins.

Several past winners have gone on to further workshops, to regional productions, to off-Broadway runs. The bragging rights go to “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, which was made into a George Clooney movie, “The Ides of March,” winner of a Golden Globe. More recently, Willimon adapted “House of Cards” for Netflix. 

“I see the arts in Dayton as very stabilizing, perhaps filling some of the holes where industry left,” Speert said. 

Those losses, specifically in sponsorships, have affected the Playhouse: so as many must, FutureFest stretches their dollars, but would be grateful for additional support.

FutureFest will be held July 25-27 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. For tickets and more information, please call 937.424.8477 or visit wordpress.thedaytonplayhouse.com.

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