Thursday, May 22, 2008

Festival Recap - Part 1

The NJ Young Playwrights Festival 2008 has come and gone. It was a most excellent event with four days full of information to share. So, let’s start with the first day…

Read-thrus at Playwrights Theatre, Madison

After two months of preparation, the Festival kicked off with first rehearsals on Saturday, May 17th. In order to have enough time to rehearse all 12 winning plays from the NJ Young Playwrights Contest, the scripts were divided into three performance groups. Two of these groups were for the high school plays (two plays per group); the third group for the junior high and elementary school plays. For this first rehearsal day, the time was split to allow all groups to get in some time together.

High School plays
The afternoon began with a read-thru of all four high school plays. The playwrights were also in attendance. For most of the playwrights, this was the first time in a while – if not the first time ever – that they heard the script read out loud. This initial reading is often a jarring experience as the play takes on new life in the words and expressions of complete strangers. But as we often tell our playwriting students, this is the manner of the art form. Plays are written to be heard and the challenge to a playwright is to craft things in a way that can be understood not just by the audience, but the actors, directors, and remainder of the creative staff.

The initial read finished 30 minutes earlier than expected, which allowed time for discussion. The directors and actors engaged the playwright with questions about the script and encouraged the playwrights to make revisions for rehearsal on Sunday.

Junior HS/Elementary plays
The latter half of the day was spent preparing the plays from the Junior HS and Elementary divisions. The biggest challenge facing this group was to present 8 plays in about 90 minutes of performance time. Also, these plays get presented as a reading, which means that the actors are stationary with little opportunity for blocking or movement. Character interpretation comes from facial expression and vocal inflection.

A reading also involves having a cast member read the stage directions to the audience. This provides them with a general idea of the setting, how the characters look, potential costumes and props – all of the things used in a performance that are not present for a reading. Reading stage directions can take up a lot of time, so in order to save time, Stephen Davis, the director of the reading (and a teaching artist with Playwrights Theatre and adjunct professor of theatre at Kean University) had the idea of using signs to provide the audience with the information they needed. Each actor had a three-ring binder with a series of inserts that stated the character they were playing and a brief description. This was placed on the stand in front of the actor to remind the audience who is who. A large easel to one side of the stage would give the title of the play, author, and the general location of the setting.

This is the only formal rehearsal that the Junior HS/Elementary reading will have until the performance on Monday. The cast was able to become familiar with the scripts and planned to walk through it again before the presentation on Monday morning.

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