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Two huge things are coming to Orange County's most entrenched cultural institution, South Coast Repertory. Newly anointed (by founding artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes) artistic director Marc Masterson officially takes over next month. And, for the first time in its 47-year history, the company is partnering with local arts groups through the Studio Space series, a pilot program giving local organizations such as the Orange County Underground Burlesque Society and the Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble weekends at SCR's 94-seat Nicholas Theater.
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But one thing stays the same: The Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF), marking its 14th year this weekend.
A key component of SCR's focus on new work, as well as the main reason for its international reputation as one of American theater's finest laboratories for new plays, the festival has weathered both the vicious slings and arrows of a turbulent national and local economy and a general lack of interest in the theatrical arts by the majority of Americans.
This year, two mainstage productions and five staged readings are part of the fest, which attracts many of American theater's heavyweight producers.
"To be honest, it's become such a vital component of our new-play development process there was never a moment when we considered eliminating it or cutting it back," says SCR's Associate Artistic Director John Glore. "We've had to make lots of other cuts and force the staff to shrink, but PPF was never on the cutting board."
Basically, PPF is a way to give new plays and—just as important—playwrights a larger forum to get noticed. Glore estimates that 75 percent of the fest's plays have gone on to further productions, either at SCR or regional theaters around the country. Its alums include Pulitzer Prize winners Nilo Cruz (Anna In the Tropics, part of the 2002 festival) and David Lindsay-Abaire (2005 entry Rabbit Hole).
"That was one of the founding objectives of the festival: What can we do to make theater a more viable career for writers and put more money in their pockets?" Glore says. "There is only so much one theater can do, so the festival's aim is to promote multiple productions."
Like every year's rendition, the selections span the theatrical spectrum. The mainstage productions for 2011 are both world premieres: Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, which runs through May 1, and Itamar Moses' Completeness, running through May 17. Staged readings include The Prince of Atlantis written by Steven Drukman, The Droll by Meg Miroshnik, How the World Began by Catherine Trieschmann, Annapurna by Sharr White, and Cloudlands by Octavio Solis and Adam Gwon. While most of the writers are young, emerging playwrights with growing reputations, one name is quite familiar to SCR audiences: Solis, who wrote the theater's long-running Christmas show, La Posada Magica, and who has worked in the theatrical trenches for 25 years. His latest work is the first musical SCR has ever commissioned.
"One of the things we like to do each year is to mix it up, so this year, the slate runs from very traditional, realistic plays that tell straightforward linear stories to The Droll," says Glore. That play, written by Miroshnik (a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama), is "the wild card in this year's mix," he says. "It's wildly theatrical and takes place in a world dominated by Puritan England. But there are also contemporary references, so it's an explosive mash-up that is fun and exciting."
While there's no way of telling which plays will ignite and go on to major productions, Glore says there have been many times when everyone in the audience of even a staged reading (which features no sets, props or actor blocking) knows something special is happening.
"You can certainly feel when a particular play is generating real buzz," he says. "Itamar's play [which was a staged reading at last year's PFF] did that last year, but there have been many examples of it happening."
Though designed to get playwrights real productions, one of the special things about PPF, Glore says, is "that the audience isn't composed entirely of theater professionals. Most of it is local theater-goers who love new work and love to be involved in the early stages of the development of a play."
This article appeared in print as "The Plays Must Go On: South Coast Rep's Pacific Playwrights Festival gears up anew."
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