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Maine Playwrights Festival tests ingenuity of creative teams

Clever wordplay and creative re-imaginings were some of the main offerings at the 12th annual Maine Playwrights Festival, held over the last two weekends at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.5-9-TG-playwright-RopeTrick1
More than just a celebration of locally made plays, the festival helps new and emerging playwrights hone their craft with a variety of formats as well as a special audience talkback featured after the first run of several of the works.
For two consecutive weekends, audiences were treated to one-act plays, longer productions, "Take Two" two-minute skits, and the 24-hour Portland Theater Project.
"Take Two" offered eight short plays, and then, following a brief intermission, the same plays were performed again, with something slightly altered — for example, different actors or a different setting.
The 24-hour Portland Theater Project has all the flavor of the 48-hour Music Festival, but with original work created in half the time.
Last Saturday, the names of writers, directors, actors and actresses were pulled from a jar, and six potential plays were created. Each play had a line of dialogue that had to be used, a prop, and a setting, all offered in a sealed envelope from another writer.
A day later, the plays were performed at St. Lawrence Arts Center, where the two-week festival was housed.
Michael Levine was the artistic director of the festival. He was joined by Keith Powell Beyland and Assunta Kent on a reading committee that sifted through about 70 plays to select this year's representatives.
"We ask them to submit the plays without their names on them," Levine said. "Then we give the selected scripts to six other directors." Levine cast all the plays.
"Once the plays were cast and directors assigned, they were pretty much on their own to direct the plays. They have a few meetings on lighting, sound, costumes. Then they all came together in the last week."
An important part of the festival is the audience talkback session, after the first run of 12 different plays. "It's a really good opportunity to find out what parts of the plays the audience found really compelling, and other parts ... not so much," Levine said. "It's good for playwrights as a vehicle for development of these plays."
Levine, who helped design and construct the space at St. Lawrence in 2000-2001, directed the center's first production there, Shakespeare's "Much Ado about Nothing" in 2001. He had worked at Portland Stage Company in 1992, and ran Oak Street Theater for six years.
Now producing director of Acorn Productions, Levine says their group used to be a traditional theater company, but it has evolved into more of an educational group.
"There are a lot of actors running around town who were trained by Acorn," he said.
The festival, itself, is also an educational vehicle, aimed at helping new playwrights get ready for the next stage.
"Some of these plays are then submitted to national competitions," Levine said of the next step for local writers. "We have had a couple of plays selected over the years, but what's more important: we've helped developed the careers of these playwrights. They come to understand what happens to their play after they write it. Then they realize it's not as much of a solitary art form as they thought."
Jefferson Navicky is one such writer. He took part this year in the 24-hour drama drive, his third time doing it in its four-year history. He described his day last weekend when he wrote "The Artifice of Eternity" and then teamed up with director Dan Burson and players Cory King, Rebecca Cole, Nick Soloway, Pat Mew and Beth Somerville to stage it a day later.
"I worked from 5:30 p.m. until one in the morning. I got up at 5 a.m. and sent it to the director by 6:30 a.m. The director sent it to the actors with a preliminary email about costume options," Navicky said. "We met at 9 a.m. and started working."
For his play, he had to incorporate the word "Abracadabra," a doll as a prop, and the beach as a setting. "None of these was particularly inspiring," he said. "I had five actors to use, which is a lot. I spent the first three hours worrying about how I was going to use five actors. I had pulled a couple things I thought might be interesting in a play, that I had in my head. I had the song 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones in my head. I had an image of a guy with his back to audience, peeing on something. He was peeing on a doll, which was an oracle. This woman had hired a 'mate detective' who used the doll to find the mate. He had to pee on it to activate it. The oracle went awry, and summoned the woman's ex-husband."
He was pleased with their production, and similarly propped up by the other five: "On the Road to Castellon" (written by Harlan Baker and directed by Reba Short), "Playa Del Doro" (written by Charlie Cole and directed by Ann Tracy), "Be Sure Your Sin Will Find You Out" (written by Michael Tooher and directed by Ella Wrenn), "The Great Fire," (written by Carolyn Gage and directed by Stephanie Ross), and "50 Shades of Tan" (by written by Cullen McGough and directed by Michael Toth).
"The other plays were pretty amazing; they all pulled together," Navicky said. "Vast variety — some quite serious, dark. One was a border dispute in Spain in the '20s, one was a mob scene where someone got shot, one was a period piece set in Bar Harbor, there was a racial tension piece, and a grand musical with four pieces of original music."
What happens next for a young playwright, with a day's worth of work or a more crafted script that still needs some editing?
"Certainly sometimes you make some changes, depending on audience talkback. Sometimes you keep sending it out, submitting it to other festivals, perhaps expanding it," said Navicky, who has augmented his last five years as a playwright by teaching English at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. For six years, he has taught creative writing there as an adjunct professor, another surefire way to stay in character. "Part of that is we work on fiction, poetry, the personal essay," he said, "and, of course, drama."

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