OC School of the Arts' PlayFest is Professional AF

Playwrights at Orange County School of the Arts who hoped to see their short plays onstage in a full production this spring all faced the same challenge: their play had to be set in a waiting room.

Lights up on a waiting room. There are two doors—one leading in from an exterior hallway or sidewalk/street, and one leading (presumably) to an interior hallway or office.” A reception desk, a loveseat and a couple chairs complete the space. Sound dull? Anything but.

A unified setting will not only make for swift scene changes during the performances of the eight chosen plays, but audiences will be surprised how varied the worlds each playwright creates within those seemingly narrow parameters. In some, we never learn for sure what the waiting room awaits, or at least not until play's end. Or these spaces where time stretches exist in itty-bitty metaphysical zones somewhere along the dream-stream of inner space or the human subconscious. From Manhattan's Upper East Side to a dive shop in Japan, the plays unfold with the heartbreaking ordinariness of daily life or struggle with existential traps; loves are lost, decisions are confronted, the paranormal is wrangled—all in ordinary-looking waiting rooms.

That may just be the point: an everyday setting offers an invitation to delve deep beneath the surface of things. And these high-school-aged playwrights have got the chops and confidence to jump right down in. No surprise there, their teacher and mentor, OC-based playwright Tira Palmquist, believes for her teaching and her own writing: “Your stories onstage need to have impact. If you're not changing people's lives, if you're not changing people's minds, I don't know why you're doing it.”

Palmquist has guided the ten-minute plays festival at OCSA since 2007, when she began teaching in the creative writing program. Under her tutelage, the fest has mirrored the path of new plays in the professional theater world—though this year's unified-setting prompt is an exception: Playwrights submit to festivals and hope to be selected for readings, where actors who stand in place with scripts on music stands give life to the plays, or staged readings, where the actors attempt to engage in action while clutching scripts in hand. Playwrights are invited to participate in the rehearsal process, rewriting along the way in conjunction with directors and cast. Audience feedback comes right after the public performances, and playwrights can incorporate these notes as they see fit, with the possibility of the host theater adding their play to the following season looming.

For OCSA's next PlaysFest, Palmquist put out a call on social media in October for readers and was bombarded with volunteers from her theater connections across the country. Her goal was to have each of the student plays read and rated by three different people. Readers were provided with a rubrik, along with a sample of a top-ranking play and one that didn't make the cut. Then she tallies the scores, and is the tie-breaker, if needed. 2017's PlaysFest will be the third year in collaboration with OCSA's acting conservatory, and the selected plays will be cast through auditions, memorized, rehearsed, lit and performed—all open to the public. It's a fruitful development, says Palmquist, “especially for 9th and 10th grade actors who don't get to act much.” Right now, the eight plays have been selected and the playwrights are busy with rewrites. Next up, directors will be chosen then auditions.

As a reader, I was blown away by Cassandra Hsiao, whose play Supermarket of Lost was provided as the sample of a 5—5 being tip-top. Written when she was 16, Hsiao's command of structure is highly sophisticated, with the invented world unfolding through distinct characters toward a suspenseful climax that explodes in the play's final seconds. From last year's OCSA PlaysFest, Hsiao's play went on to be produced at Blank Theater's Young Playwrights Festival in Los Angeles and will be given a full production as a winner of the California Young Playwrights Contest in January 2017 at the Old Globe in San Diego; read her blogpost Broadway World about being in the midst of rewrites. These kids are kickass. But so is their mentor.

Palmquist's marvelous plays, such as the published Age of Bees, have been workshopped from U-Mass to Los Angeles to Denver on their way to full productions. Like her student Hsiao, Palmquist's play Two Degrees, which was presented at the Denver Center New Play Summit early in 2016, was chosen to have its world premiere production at the prestigious regional theater this coming February, when she'll be flying back and forth to participate in rehearsals of Two Degrees and the OCSA PlaysFest. The teaching artist's wry sense of humor, and passion for science and human rights appear in her creative writing and her mentoring. When will South Coast Rep or OC-Centric take notice? As my late grandmother would say, shop in your own closet….

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