The future of theatre arrives at Dayton Playhouse with FutureFest

Photo: The judging session of the play ‘Memories’ for FutureFest, this year July 20-23 at Dayton Playhouse; photo: Art Fabian

By Jacqui Theobald

Seeing a whole weekend of six new plays can get to be a near obsession, but fans of FutureFest are eager to be yearly participants. Five theatre professional from all over the country judge the work; finalists are selected from among the 200 or so submitted scripts, and the six playwrights are brought to the Dayton Playhouse, this year July 20–23, to see their words come to life on stage. Lucky local audiences then have a chance to offer their own comments and questions after each presentation and to chat with authors and adjudicators during breaks.

Many past FutureFest plays have gone on to other theatres. Some have been published and promoted for regional productions. Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” played in New York and was picked up by George Clooney to become the film “The Ides of March” in 2011. Willimon more recently created House of Cards for Netflix.

This year’s competing final plays illustrate serious issues and prove that showing a situation is most effective, as we often hear. They pierce assumptions with a realistic poke and attempt to consider individual cultural viewpoints. Each is entirely different.

It has been said there’s a novel or a play in each of us, although few actually start and finish those great ideas. An extra perk this year will be a free Thursday night reading of a completed idea and new play by New York/New Jersey theatre critic, writer, and longtime adjudicator Peter Filicia—he’s caught the bug! His play, “Adam’s Gift,” began when he had seen yet another version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and wondered why the archaic language was never updated. “I don’t know anyone named Ebenezer, or anyone who actually says humbug, or anyone named Scrooge or Cratchit,” he says.

He pitched suggestions to a pseudo Dickens playwright who didn’t seem interested. Still inspired by his thought, he decided it was time for the critic to rotate the set, metaphorically. He set out to create the Romanos and a play where one ghost does all the work, people are civil to each other, and there’s no profanity. Not a play for Broadway.

“Adam’s Gift” has been performed in New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Iowa. In one of those last-minute theatrical crises, twins quickly learned the lead, one performing the first act, the other the second when the original actor was unable to go on. It worked.

“I don’t know who the actors will be who read my play on Thursday night, but I know they’ll be good,” Filicia says. “Dayton actors are terrific. Not all the talent goes to New York. They make other life choices, but the talent is there.” Filichia says his visits in 46 states have shown him the richness of regional and community theatre. That’s where he sees the future of his play.

There are four plays by women, two by men—a first for FutureFest, historically featuring more male playwrights. All seem to have a strong social conscience as well as flashes of humor, perceptive writing, and the ability to create memorable characters. Every submitted script is read three times by members of a preliminary committee which chooses 12 semifinalists. From those, a different committee selects the six plays that will flash at the Playhouse. It is a very careful and thoughtful process that involves many theatre-wise readers and extends for nearly half the year before the big weekend. All the winners have impressive accomplishments and deep passion for their work.

“On Pine Knoll Street” by Mark Cornell of Chapel Hill, N.C., July 21, 8 p.m. 

Two generations share a home, daughter Marilyn and her 87-year-old mother who has memory issues. Marilyn needs a break and her neighbor, Curtis, agrees to take care of Mom, the house, the cats, and the unexpected issues. The characters are bound to generate empathy and, perhaps, recognition.

Curtis is a stay-at-home dad, as is playwright Cornell. “I had done a number of very dark scripts reflecting current cruelty and really wanted to create a piece that showed compassion and caring for each other,” Cornell says. “We need that, and it’s true we are warm-hearted, with each other and our animals.” Richard Waldeck directs. The production will be fully staged.

“First Do No Harm” by J. Thalia Cunningham of Albany, New York, July 22, 10 a.m.

Two African-American women—one a highly educated doctor like the playwright, the other a grandmother, perceptive and educated by life, filled with the wisdom of her years—are concerned about a young man. He’s a hospital patient.

Both women are aware of the racial disparities of treatment. But when the boy, who is 21 and legally self-responsible, leaves the hospital against medical advice without being entirely honest, the issues become complicated.

Based on a real case, the playwright’s work offers no quick answers, but highlights physical and emotional response to illness.

Jackie Darnell directs. The production will be a reading.

“Wake” by Vince Gatton of New York City, July 22, 3 p.m. 

Playwright Vince Gatton “once lived the nerd dream of competing on Jeopardy.”

Although he was purposefully a bit mysterious about the twists and turns of his play’s plot in a recent interview with Dayton City Paper, he was quite clear about the essentials he addresses. He deals with same-sex marriage and AIDS, but his concern is that the history of the battles surrounding acceptance for both are issues lost to today’s young people.

The story involves a male married couple, their baby, and a new house. It’s set in 2013 when the issue of same sex marriage was a prominent controversy, after the public’s realizations and concern about the AIDS epidemic.

Dan, the older man of the couple, seems to be sleepwalking and Eric is worried. A visitor, Esme, tells ghost stories, which apparently assume some significance.

Dan begins to see a connection. He also realizes there’s an invisible line separating the perception of the struggles earlier AIDS workers had for understanding and the more contemporary issues of equality in marriage. In the end, Gatton says, “It’s not about activists, but about people and relationships.”

Tim Rezash directs. The production will be a reading.

“Magnificent Hubba Hubba” by Olga Humphrey of New York City, July 22, 8 p.m. 

There are connections between a teenage boy and an old-time woman wrestler and her former competitor, whose name the playwright leaves in mystery. The boy longs to connect with the woman’s granddaughter, although she is not interested in him.

It is a comedy written with the intention to create good roles for older actors, an important theatrical issue.

The characters are improvised, but are based on real people. A magazine article was the kernel of her inspiration. Cultural differences, including age, are exposed. The concept has to be fun for both actors and audience. Directed by Annie Pesch. The production is fully staged. 

“The Spanish Prayer Book” by Angela Davis of Los Angeles, July 23, 10 a.m.

Real history, extensive research, and connections between generations clear back to 14th century Spain form the focus of this story. It tells of the overlapping traditions of Jewish and Islamic traditions when an atheist inherits ancient manuscripts and a prayer book. Then the fact they were stolen from a Berlin library creates a moral dilemma if they are sold. It was an actual court case, one of several dealing with attributing ownership of art after WWII. The passions and connections play out among the characters involved, including a love story.

The playwright, an attorney, said, “I see parallels with current issues in Iraq and other Mid-East countries going back to the 1980s, or really way back to ownership questions as long ago as the Elgin Marbles.”

K. J. Melson directs. The production will be a reading.

“The Puppeteer” by Desiree York of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, July 23, 3 p.m.

Family traditions over many generations can include courage in the face of society’s continuing pressures and cultural distortions. We first meet Constance in the 1920s, a jazz singer during the Harlem Renaissance. Her daughter, also called Constance, faces similar issues, in her own time. The play traces subsequent daughters of the family to contemporary times, each managing to survive the societal and cultural manipulations of her generation. Kip Moore directs.

At the conclusion of the audience questions and adjudicators’ comments on Sunday afternoon, there’s a free casual fried chicken picnic, with all the fixin’s, generously provided by one of the original FutureFest creators, John Riley. Meanwhile, the adjudicators, paper plates in hand, retire to decide the winner. The audience votes on their favorite, but it carries no prize money or trophy, just bragging rights.

Patrons scatter around the flower-filled Wegerzyn Gardens and the playwrights sit on pins and needles, waiting to hear. Eventually all re-gather in the theatre, many participants are acknowledged and thanked, and the winners are announced.

The adjudicators this year include Peter Filicia, newly non-competing playwright and experienced critic; Eileen Morris, Artistic Director of the Ensemble Theatre, Houston; Ashley Rodbro, Broadway and off-Broadway stage manager; and Helen Sneed, formerly of New York and all things theatre, longest-serving FF Adjudicator and Playwright. Her work, “Fix Me Jesus”, ran off-Broadway and also at the Dayton Playhouse. One more [adjudicator] is to be announced. With five established categories, they rotate chairs, each addressing a different topic, such as “page to stage” for each play. They have previously read each script and given it a score. They then combine the score they attribute when they see and hear the performance, judging only on content and stage worthiness, not actors or directors. It is impressive to see how seriously they take their task and how diligently they listen and take notes and subsequently comment.

Later they mingle with audience members and writers, contributing to the positive atmosphere of the weekend. As Dayton City Paper was able to speak to the playwrights by phone, all of them waxed about FutureFest’s supportive reputation, also discussed by many writers on social media and in person for its power of art as an instrument to increase social awareness.

FutureFest takes the stage Thursday – Sunday, July 20 – 23 at Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthlaler Ave. in Dayton. Weekend passes are $100. For more information, please call 937.424.8477 or visit DaytonPlayhouse.com.

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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