South Coast event spotlights new scribes

COSTA MESA, Calif. — This year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival marks South Coast Repertory’s 11th annual convocation of industry and publishing reps from coast to coast, in search of that most elusive of entities, the next fine new play.

From May 2-4, the Orange County mainstay will host seven new works by scribes both established (Richard Greenberg’s “The Injured Party” gets one of two full productions) and up-and-coming (TV writer Kate Robin’s “What They Have” receives the other).

John Kolvenbach, whose “Goldfish” will have a staged reading, sums up what the playwrights want: “To get into a room with talented people and find out what your play is.”

This year’s slate consists exclusively of SCR commissions (one, by Lynn Nottage, shared with Baltimore’s Center Stage).

“That wasn’t our intent,” says associate artistic director John Glore of the self-stamp, who with co-fest director Megan Monaghan examined 15 commissions and more than 100 outside submissions for this year’s selections. “But we’re looking for the best writing, and the most successful plays on their own terms, and these were the best.”

The PPF roster is an ambitious lot. Only “Goldfish,” described as a “bittersweet comedy about two college students who fall quirkily in love,” seems to fit the intimately scaled, character-driven mold usually associated with new play development in America.

Three scribes demonstrate what Glore calls “an interest in using history as a lens.” “Emilie,” Lauren Gunderson’s profile of Voltaire’s mistress, explores the dilemma of accomplished women in a man’s world. Amy Freed’s “You, Nero” employs what she calls “a fig leaf of togas” to take on her contemporary subject, a serious theater community trying to survive against spectacle, sports and murder.

Nottage, who avers, “My whole career has involved a conversation with history,” puts that conversation onto the stage in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” pitting a glamorous white movie star against an African-American aspiring thesp in pre-Code Hollywood, their relationship revisited 40 years later.

Then there are modern-dress offerings. Sharr White’s “Sunlight,” getting an on-its-feet workshop, is set on a college campus in crisis, while Greenberg offers up a multigenerational clash of old-money types set against Christo’s 2005 “Gates” installation.

“It’s not like many of my other plays,” Greenberg says. “It’s looser, less formal. It’s trying to sustain attention without resorting to the techniques I was most familiar with, within the two-act form.”

Glore wonders whether the final roster’s all-SCR imprimatur might send a misleading message to guests.

“Psychologically, people coming to the festival may think ‘These were all commissioned by SCR; I’ll never get my hands on them.’ But actually everyone has a shot,” he explains. Since fest offerings far outnumber SCR’s available slots, the company’s first right of refusal hasn’t impeded numerous featured plays from nationwide premieres. And the playwrights appreciate the support.

Nottage recalls the commission of “Intimate Apparel” by Center Stage and SCR as “coming at a really pivotal point in my life, when I needed the commission money to keep me writing.” “Intimate Apparel” became a Pulitzer finalist and one of the most produced plays in the U.S. for several years.

Freed expresses her gratitude for South Coast hospitality in more wryly practical terms: “For me, it was the first time I was ever treated with recognition and respect,” she says. “To be put into a hotel instead of some aunt’s garage, I felt I’d died and gone to heaven.”

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