ACT launches a program for emerging theatrical writers

YOUR IDEA HERE: Alex Daly, left, and John Hall performed in 'Red,' an intense drama about painter Mark Rothko, on the 25below stage in 2017. Photo courtesy of Mockingbird Theatre Productions

Two playwrights and a spoken-word artist recently approached Asheville Community Theatre about producing shows in 35below, ACT’s intimate black box space. But instead of the typical three-weekend run, each of the three artists wanted a shorter run time: a single weekend in which to test or develop new work. After hearing the same request three times, “I thought, ‘There’s clearly something that’s missing, in terms of the availability,” says ACT marketing director Jenny Bunn.

In response to that need, the theater launched its Artistic Horizons program, which “gives local artists the opportunity to pursue new creative paths in the theater. The 2019-20 Artistic Horizons season will consist of three shows performed in 35below; each of these three shows will receive three performances over one weekend,” says the ACT website. Proposals are being accepted until Wednesday, May 15.

Bunn explains that the program is geared toward “new or emerging artists, writers who are expanding their craft to include playwriting [and] first-time directors who want to workshop a piece before committing to a full performance run.” The webpage for Artistic Horizons adds, “ACT seeks a diversity of voices, perspectives and experiences; scripts by women and/or people of color; and scripts that illuminate contemporary issues.”

Not everyone interested in producing a show on a local stage came up through high school or college theater programs. That means there might be a steep learning curve or barriers to access for some creatives. “You can get a group of friends together and read a script in your living room, certainly,” Bunn notes. “But it’s harder to know how your script is landing without an audience. So, hopefully, this is a good first step for people who are thinking about moving in this direction — without feeling like, ‘I have to sell this many tickets to know if people are interested.’”

The 35below theater seats 40 and is best suited for small productions with casts of one to four and minimalist sets. So, a 15-person musical: not so much. But because of space’s small size and inherent low overhead, ACT can take risks on lesser known and edgier productions, as opposed to on its mainstage, where ticket sales are depended on to pay the bills.

Still, the know-how that goes into running the theater’s mainstage season also benefits the smaller 35below performances. “We’re going to work really hard to make sure people come and see [your show],” says Bunn. “We’re used to sending out press releases; we’ve got an e-newsletter that goes out to 20,000 people.” Those services are included in the Artistic Horizons contract (though artists should still help market their productions through their personal and online networks).

In addition to that promotional support, the Artistic Horizons program pairs each show with a lighting designer and assists those new to the theater world with tech rehearsals. Playwrights don’t pay for space rental; instead, 35below splits ticket sales with the artists. This means those wanting to stage new work on shoestring budgets can do so.

Most productions in 35below are low-cost endeavors. Sets include simple furniture and boxes, and the audience brings imagination to fill out the minimalist design. Plenty of successful plays, from the beloved Santaland Diaries to a recent staging of An Iliad, have mounted great art with limited resources.

The Artistic Horizons program hopes to bring more such work, from emerging area creatives, to the stage. “Asheville values local work,” says Bunn. “[Playwrights] need a place to start.”

Learn more and submit a show proposal at avl.mx/5w3

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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