The Play's the Thing

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF), the West Coast's largest conclave of playwrights, directors and big-time theater administrators. It ranks among the most respected and successful new play festivals in the country, with major theater players from across America rolling into Costa Mesa.

It's a big deal, one of the few truly legitimate reasons why anyone who believes Orange County's cultural significance begins and ends with the Pageant of the Masters doesn't know what they're talking about.

And, chances are, you or someone you know very well couldn't care less.

It's theater, after all, and even when its best actors, directors and writers can't afford to commit to it full-time, why should the rest of us care?

Well, glad you asked. In our ongoing effort to liberate the minds of the masses from the shackles of mediocrity and chains of ignorance, here are some reasons why you or someone you love should love the PPF.

To remind yourself that language still matters!In an age of moving pictures and the Internet, the value of spoken words seems negligible at best. But the PPF is a great reminder of the immeasurable power of language spoken and heard in real time. While there are two full-scale productions (Julie Marie Myatt's My Wandering Boyand David Wiener's System Wonderland) and a workshop production (Kenneth Lin's Po'Boy Tango), the heart of the festival beats loudest in the staged readings, in which actors sit in their everyday clothes and read from hand-held scripts. “A reading can be a more exciting process for some,” says John Glore, who co-directs the festival with Meghan Monaghan. “In a reading, there are no costumes, lighting or sound-design elements, so the audience becomes enlisted in the creative experience. If you're the kind of theatergoer who is excited about that kind of imaginative interplay, a reading can often be more rewarding than a full-scale production, where all the artistic choices have already been made.”

To hear big names!This year's festival includes readings of new plays by three of the country's most respected playwrights: Donald Margulies, Richard Greenberg and Jose Rivera. Margulies has won a Pulitzer (Dinner With Friends), Greenberg a Tony (Take Me Out) and Rivera, along with Obie awards and other laurels, an Oscar nomination (The Motorcycle Diaries). The fourth reading is of a new musical by John Strand—the first musical in the PPF's history—who has had two plays produced at SCR.

To get in on the ground floor of something big!Since its inception, the PPF has included 65 plays. Of those, 60 have been produced at SCR or other major regional theaters. Pulitzer Prize winners Anna In the Tropicsand Rabbit Holewere heard at the PPF in recent years.

To watch a work of art take shape!While most of these plays will receive full productions someday, all will be different from their readings or workshop productions. And audience input—both in terms of how members react while listening and what they write on comment cards afterwards—has a great impact on future versions of the work.

To see that weasely president from24!Some big Hollywood faces routinely take part in the festival, since the commitment for readings is only three to four days, as opposed to two months for full-fledged shows. This year, you can see Gregory Itzen (President Charles Logan from 24),Jill Clayburgh, Adam Arkin and John Vickery (a big name among Babylon 5 junkies).

To help save human existence! (Or at least contemporary playwrighting).The PPF was designed to help get playwrights more productions through exposing their work to theater administrators across the country. But the true endgame is to help keep playwrights interested in writing for the theater. “Now more than ever it's difficult to make a living as a playwright due to the talent drain of promising young playwrights tempted away to Hollywood and never returning to the theater,” Glore says. “It's sad for the theater because we're losing talent, but also for the writers because they're not be able to mature as artists. Film and TV don't tend to promote artistic development. They latch onto writers. But what a festival like this is intended to do is to help make our most talented playwrights stay encouraged about writing for theater and to get them more productions around the country, which can provide a viable career for them.”

In other words: you'll never make as much money writing, directing or acting for the theater as you will for film, TV or, someday soon, the Internet and Mammon knows what else down the high-tech road. But, at the end of the day, you'll have more of your soul intact. And if that's not reason enough to support the Pacific Playwrights Festival, well, then you're a lost cause.

Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Fri.-Sun. Visit the website for reading and workshop times. Individual readings, $12; workshop performance, $20; mainstage productions, $31-$60.

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