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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Playwrights Center draws nationally with PlayLabs, its annual festival of new plays

PlayLabs
Christina Baldwin, Jodi Kellogg, Phyllis Wright, Sarah Agnew, and Tracy Maloney in rehearsal for Vrooommm! A NASComedy
On a sauna-hot day in Minneapolis, it's cold in the rehearsal room of the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. Very cold. Assistant Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA., Rick DesRochers, has the thermostat set down in its boots as he rehearses six actors for the PlayLabs festival reading of Janet Allard and co-conceiver/developer Michael Bigelow Dixon's high-octane, satirical spoof, Vrooommm! A NAScomedy.

Laughter rocks the small space as DesRochers and some of the Twin Cities' top actors improvise physical gags into their on-book reading. The stage manager gestures discreetly to an intern to nudge up the thermostat. During a break, Allard and Bigelow Dixon walk into all the fun.

Allard consults with DesRochers and calls out, "Cut Chip's 'It's all my fault.' It's a rhythm thing." Bigelow Dixon offers more trims, and they both perch on a raised wall to watch the rehearsal and succumb to the laughter. As he directs, DesRochers nips over to the thermostat and resets it in the way-down 60s. The rehearsal zips ahead. I long for a jacket. Mouth to microphone, actor Emil Herrera rips out the sequence of roaring NASCAR engines going into a turn, and the actors' heads whip right, one after the other, to follow imagined cars.

Under the high-energy leadership of producing artistic director Polly Carl, the just-completed 23rd PlayLabs has grown from a three-play reading, held at the University of Minnesota, to the present eight-play reading in the Playwright Center's Waring Jones Theater. "To my mind," said Carl, "three plays do not a festival make. People won't fly in to see just three plays. My challenge was how to build a new festival without expense."

Carl took over as the Playwrights Center's director in 2002 and met with member playwrights. "They all said, 'To have our plays read and then put in a box, does us nothing.' I had a mandate from writers to figure out a way to get plays produced; my mission became, how to get these plays produced.

"I was determined to advocate for playwright's work. I talked with theaters about developing new plays in a collaborative fashion." Locally, the Guthrie, Children's Theatre Company, and The Great American History Theater have signed on to collaborate with PlayLabs, and this year, Signature Theatre (VA.) is supporting Vrooommm! Collaborating theaters may offer work that they have commissioned for selection into PlayLabs.

"It makes the process much more vibrant," said Carl. "We cover the overheads - hire the actors, book tickets, send out brochures and provide tech staff and stage managers." Collaborating theaters pay the actors and cover their personal costs to the tune of approximately $5,000. Each theater makes its own arrangements regarding a commitment to produce a play. Four of the eight PlayLabs pieces, this year, have supporting theaters working with them.

A problem-solver to her petite core, Carl came up with other solutions to get work produced. She contacted colleges whose drama departments welcomed the opportunity to stage new, polished, but still-in-process plays. The Playwright Center's one-year-old New Plays on Campus initiative started with nine Minnesota colleges and has already grown to include 21 colleges in nine states. "Serving as the college theater community's literary manager-at-large," said Carl, "means giving our member playwrights opportunities to have their plays produced, and to get hired for residencies." Playwright Vincent Delaney had his play, Perpetua, produced at St. Olaf College last year and was hired for a residency last fall. Carelton College in Minnesota took Allard and Bigelow Dixon's Vrooommm! and gave it a full production.

"There's excitement and a natural synergy for our students to launch a play that could go on to Broadway," said Ruth Weiner, Carleton's Department Head of Theater and Dance. Her students had such an experience when Carleton premiered Jeffrey Hatcher's Smash. "Vrooommm! is exciting in the way it plays with gender roles," Weiner said. "Janet has a wicked sense of humor."

Carl's other solution to getting new plays produced is to post a New Play Gallery and playwright profile on the Playwright Center's extensive web site. "We are about creating a more democratic process for playwrights," she said. "I don't want it to be about who you know."

Signature's DesRochers keeps current with scripts coming through the Playwrights' Center and likes new work. He grew up near a stock-car racing track in New Hampshire and, when he saw an early draft of Vrooommm!, he loved the gender-edged send-up of women playing the super-macho men of NASCAR. He commissioned Vrooommm! for Signature and said, "We're considering it strongly for our Fall 2006 season in our new building."

Bigelow Dixon worked with Allard when she was a Playwrights Center Jerome Fellow and said, "NASCAR is universally white males; it totally lacks irony. People walk around like human billboards. The cars are plastered with advertising and consume tons of fuel. It's all so excessive, but it's hard to satirize straight on." He and Allard liked the solution of gender reversal, as women play both male and female drivers and their multiple hangers-on.

Allard attended Indianapolis and the Brick Yard 400, read extensively and watched NASCAR on TV to research the sport. Having watched Vrooommm! being staged at Carelton, she said, "We could see the parts that needed tidying up." The intensive two-week script workshop at PlayLabs she described as invaluable to a playwright. "PlayLabs is very well respected nationally," she said. "Lots of theater people come to it. It's good exposure for the play and for me." Leaping from the ridiculous to the sublime, Allard has been commissioned by St. Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota to create a play about Einstein.

PlayLabs receives over 300 scripts in an un-juried application. "Anyone can enter," said Carl. Local theater professionals read and whittle down that number to some 75 plays. A further reading selects just 20, then Carl and two other readers reduce that pool. "I make the final curatorial choices," Carl said.

Like a high-end shopping mart for artistic directors and literary managers, PlayLabs draws theater people from across the nation to see what new work is available. "PlayLabs' standards are very high," said Bigelow Dixon, who is Literary Manager for the Guthrie as well as being a playwright, dramaturge and director. Carl added, "Plays can also be picked off our web site."

Freddie Ashley, Literary Manager for Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, attended PlayLabs for a third consecutive year. "PlayLabs always has a slate of wonderful playwrights," he said. "The Playwrights' Center feeds American theater with excellent work." He has advocated for six plays, most of which have gone on to professional productions.

"Eighty five percent of PlayLabs plays," points out Polly Carl, "go on to full production." Asked where she wants to see the Playwrights' Center in five years, Carl said, "At a minimum, I want it to be the national center for new plays."

With the Guthrie Theater's vigorous, five-pronged playwrighting program, under the direction of Bigelow Dixon, the new work being produced by Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Mixed Blood, The Jungle, Park Square, Children's Theatre, Red Eye, the Great American History Theater, Illusion Theater's just finished "Fresh Ink" series, Commonweal's commissions and Minneapolis' irrepressible Fringe Festival that will feature 168 shows from August 4-14, Minnesota is becoming a magnet for playwrights.

"Minnesota," Allard agreed, "is a good place to be a playwright."

"I want the Playwrights' Center to be an American Dream organization," continued Carl, "a place where anyone can come and have a play read, and some will go on to Broadway." The Center lists among its many notable alums, August Wilson, Lee Blessing, Craig Lucas, Naomi Iizuka, Mac Wellman and Kira Obolensky.

"The Playwrights' Center is a service organization that operates to support playwrights with fellowships, grants and many other programs." said Ashley, "There's no new play development festival quite like PlayLabs throughout the country. The Playwrights' Center is a kind of singular institution."

PlayLabs 2005 plays are: Megan Mostyn-Brown's The Secret Lives of Losers in collaboration with the Guthrie; Jeany Park's 100 Men's Wife in collaboration with The Great American History Theater; Organizing Abraham Lincoln by Lonnie Carter and Rich Klimmer; Exposure Time by Kim Merrill; Sofa: Enchanted Evening, by Sherry Kramer; Esperanza Rising by Lynne Alverez in collaboration with the Children's Theatre Company; Moscow Plays, by Rachel Perlmeter; Vrooommm! A NAScomedy conceived and developed with Michael Bigelow Dixon in collaboration with Signature Theatre, (VA.) See www.pwcenter.org.


- Elizabeth Weir

Elizabeth will be taking a break from Minneapolis theatre for a few weeks. She will be back in early September.



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