Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a fashion designer or a musician, moving from impressing your friends and family to making an impact on strangers — or, better yet, the “people that matter” — is often the difference between a serious hobby and a professional career.
For actors, directors and especially playwrights, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s ScriptWorks Playwrights’ Conference is just that kind of opportunity.
ScriptWorks actually began last September, when playwrights submitted their work in a blind competition (meaning that the writers’ names didn’t appear on their scripts). From the 70 entries received, volunteer readers and SART professionals reduced the stack to four finalists, considering the works’ originality, theatrical value, effectiveness of dialogue, degree of potential audience interest and appropriateness for the SART stage — since, ultimately, the selected play may be produced by SART the following year.
At this weekend’s conference, the four final scripts will be read by experienced actors, under veteran directors, for a live audience. According to SART Managing Director Andy Reed, the event gives voice to new, not-yet-published scripts, and provides writers with a chance to get feedback from actors, directors and theatergoers.
“For the audience, it’s similar to visiting a working artist’s studio,” he says. “It’s a chance to see theater being made.”
For writers, the conference is invaluable. As playwright C. Robert Jones points out, “It’s the first time the author has heard the words out loud, and also the first time the characters have been given a human form. … Further, it’s the first time a playwright can gauge an audience’s response to the material — in general and in particular.”
“Most people do not realize that it is a very difficult and time-consuming process to get a play produced,” adds finalist (and Hendersonville resident) Katy Parisi.
This year, three of the four scripts chosen were penned by local playwrights. Jones, a former MHC professor of Theatre Arts, kicks off the weekend with Taking a Chance on Love. This romantic comedy is the story of Ned, who brings his French fiancee, Madeleine (18 years his senior), home to meet his twice-divorced father, Edgar, and his grandmother, Margaret. Edgar invites both Ned’s mother and his stepmother (the ex-wives) to the occasion, while Madeleine brings along her former husband, Kiki, and their daughter.
From this absurd tangle of relationships, all the wrong people fall in love. (Jones has had a number of plays produced by SART and other area theaters, and regularly submits to ScriptWorks.)
Asheville’s own Anita Chapman will have her play White Winter Sun read on Saturday. Her first submission to the conference, Chapman’s story is a family drama centered on Emily Page, a middle-aged education administrator who lives with her husband and her mother, Lillian, who has recently moved in after living in a retirement home. Tension rises between Emily and her aging mother when Lillian’s hopes for rekindled love with an old beau, Jack, are extinguished after he comes to visit.
The conference continues with Puzzles, an original drama by Parisi. The play focuses on Billy, a 10-year-old who travels from his home in California to spend time with his grandparents in the Midwest. As Billy and his grandfather routinely escape to the basement to do jigsaw puzzles and listen to old opera records, the play follows the development and long-lasting impact of their relationship as they explore the larger questions (read: puzzles) of life. (Puzzles is Parisi’s first submission to ScriptWorks.)
The conference ends Sunday afternoon with Billy Doswell’s Grate Mates. Doswell, of Richmond, Va., has had two previous plays, Full Moon Over Montmartre and Accoutrements, read at ScriptWorks and later produced by SART. His latest submission is a comedy about the unlikely alliance between a retired schoolteacher, a down-and-out stockbroker, a former junkie and a young black kid, who all find themselves living on the street.
Words to the wise
This year marks the 23rd season that SART has hosted ScriptWorks as part of its mission to develop new plays. Following the conference, the original panel of judges will choose a winner from the four finalists. If the script is deemed suitable for the SART stage, that play will be produced by the company in 2006. (Last year’s winner, Finding the Absent Crescent, by former Asheville resident Gina Pauratore, will be featured as SART’s 50th World Premiere production this summer.)
But Reed is quick to say that the winning play doesn’t always boast the best writing. To be produced, the play must make sense for SART financially — both the scope of the production and its potential appeal for SART audiences.
However, participation in ScriptWorks carries repercussions beyond the weekend conference — for all finalists. Notes Reed: “[It] may lead to a commission from SART to write other plays, or attention from other professional theaters.”
And thanks to the initial blind-judging process, these eventual coups are within reach for any playwright.
“A very experienced writer may submit a play that isn’t chosen, while a newcomer with little or no experience may be selected — which, incidentally, is exactly what happened this year.”
Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre presents the ScriptWorks Playwrights’ Conference, a free event, in Owen Theatre on the campus of Mars Hill College in Mars Hill Friday, May 20 through Sunday, May 22. Taking a Chance on Love will be read Friday at 7:30 p.m.; White Winter Sun will be read Saturday at 2 p.m.; Puzzles will be read Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Grate Mates will be read Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 689-1239 or see www.sartheatre.com for more information.