Move over, coffee: It's playwrights' day in the sun in Seattle
Seattle is earning a rep as a hub for gifted playwrights and compelling new plays, evidenced by local writers' earning national notice and by the sheer number of talented playwrights landing here who find plenty of stages that welcome their work.
Seattle Times theater critic
Seattle has a national reputation as an "actor's town," admired for the quality of its thespian talent pool.
But is the Emerald City also earning a rep as a hub for gifted playwrights and compelling new plays?
The September 2012 issue of American Theatre Magazine features a profile of Cheryl L. West (her "Pullman Porter Blues" debuts at Seattle Repertory Theatre this month) and reprints the script of fellow Seattle author Yussef El Guindi's "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World" (aired at ACT Theatre in 2011).
That's just the tip of the iceberg: The fall stage calendar boasts a spree of new-play action in our theatrical backyard.
Readings, new-works festivals and world premieres by local scribes penning plays in various styles and formats are planned at bookstores and libraries, fringe venues and first-tier showplaces.
According to Seattle Rep associate artistic director Braden Abraham,"We now have exciting writers working here at every level."
"There's a greater appreciation of the wonderful playwrights at work right here in our area," observes El Guindi, whose plays are garnering national prizes. "Maybe it's all part of the 'buy local' movement!"
Anita Montgomery, literary manager of ACT and its busy play-development wing, sees "more interesting new scripts here, definitely. More and better."
For example: This month, Book-It Repertory unveils "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," localite Annie Lareau's adaptation of Jamie Ford's best-selling novel, set in wartime Seattle.
• "The Ramayana," based on a sacred Hindu text, and scripted by El Guindi and Seattle's Stephanie Timm, debuts Oct. 12 at ACT;
• New Century Theatre Company stages a sneak peek of Vincent Delaney's Broadway-optioned "Foreclosure" on Sept. 20;
• "Maldoror," the first new UMO Ensemble piece in a good while, also opens Sept. 20.
More new works are in the mix at the Seattle Fringe Festival on Capitol Hill (Sept. 19-23) and October's sprawling ArtsCrush Festival. And public play readings happen frequently: The Northwest Playwrights Alliance hosts them monthly (this Tuesday, at Seattle Rep, "Seven Ways to Get There" by Olympia writer Bryan Willis.) And Furnace Reading Series, the Mahogany Project, Live Girls! and Macha Monkey focus on new works by women, and New City is a veteran introducer of scripts by Ki Gottberg and others.
So why this wave of new work by local dramatists? And what does it mean for discerning theatergoers?
As for the why, Willis says "the big houses opening up more to local writers" is a factor.
Example: "Pullman Porter Blues" will be the Rep's first debut of a Seattle script since a 2004 mounting of "The O'Conner Girls" by Katie Forgette.
For Abraham and Rep artistic director Jerry Manning, nurturing fresh plays is more of a priority now, with writing commissions, workshops and a Rep-sponsored Writers Group. The latter gives Washington State-based authors two-year Rep residencies with a modest stipend, staged readings and other resources attached. (Willis and Delaney are current residents, with Stephanie Timm, Al Frank and Elizabeth Heffron.)
And among the Rep's play commissions are Part 2 of Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle dramatist Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way," a bio-drama about President Johnson. (Part 1 is on now at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)
ACT is ramping up, too, with its annual New Play Awards, a Young Playwrights Program in local schools, and play-reading partnerships with the Hansberry Theatre Project, the new Latino troupe eSe Teatro, the Icicle Creek Theatre Festival and Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival. The Seattle Children's Theatre continues to engage writers here to adapt works of literature for youth.
"Everyone in town interested in supporting local artists is getting more serious about it," says Montgomery. "We have to if we want writers to stay and work here."
To Allison Gregory, who (with her fellow playwright, husband Steven Dietz) now divides her time between Seattle and Austin, Texas, "Doors seem wide-open to local writers lately. It's a sign of growth, not just a resurrection but a birth."
Larger institutions can offer more visibility and financial help to dramatists. But it's our vibrant network of smaller and fringe theaters that often provide initial breaks and ongoing outlets.
Annex Theatre regularly showcases local offbeat work (i.e. Kelleen Conway Blanchard's recent "Kittens in a Cage"), as does Washington Ensemble Theatre (Jessica Hatlo's "Stuck"). Printer's Devil Theater recently debuted Keri Healey's touted "Torso." Macha Monkey and Live Girls! focus mainly on plays by area women writers.
It seems Seattle is attracting more young, ambitious theater artists in general than it has since the mid-1990s. Since the recession hit, rents are cheaper than in L.A. or New York — cities that can, to a lucky few, supply far more media attention and commercial opportunity. But in Seattle, "the geographical surroundings alone are inspiring," says El Guindi, "and there are just enough — not a lot but enough — theaters and writer's groups that will let you practice your craft."
So is there a "Seattle school" of playwriting style?
The main trend I spot here is actually a greater variety of theme and style, and more full-bodied, full-length original scripts.
Montgomery believes the output of emerging local dramatists is growing more sophisticated. "They're more eager to see and learn from what other writers are doing, and their own work is getting stronger because of it."
And for theatergoers? In the arts, it takes a lot of dross to glean some gold. And sampling new works presents a higher risk of disappointment.
But good attendance at play readings (which, helpfully, are offered at no or low cost) suggests an openness to the new and unexpected, as does the mainstage success of "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri," Delaney's "99 Layoffs," and other scripts incubated here.
How long the latest Seattle play boomlet will last, and how many first-rate scripts will come of it, is anyone's guess. Such bursts tend to be cyclical, instigated by cultural, economic and other factors.
Additional resources could certainly help create a more stable playwrights community in Seattle.
"We need meaningful funding that encourages local (writer-theater) partnerships," says Abraham. "We also need a more flexible arrangement with Actors Equity union, so smaller productions can have access to the entire pool of rich acting talent this city has to offer. Young playwrights can learn a lot working with great actors."
Some authors, such as John Longenbaugh, point with envy to Minneapolis, where the Jerome Foundation and The Playwrights' Center provide substantial fellowships and other help to gifted dramatists who must toil months, even years, to make a script stageworthy.
Will Seattle-area funders and individual patrons step forward to offer similarly generous backing here, in addition to the modest literary grants available now?
That could be a wise and resonant investment, since the best plays crafted here can become dynamic Seattle exports to other cities, too.
Meanwhile, intrepid stage fans have many chances in the coming season to sample scripts by Seattle playwrights — a cadre that may be reaching critical mass.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org