I spent the weekend in San Diego – in the basement theatre of San Diego Rep, to be exact – for the National New Play Network festival. It’s my third new play festival this year (I also went to Humana in Louisville, Kentucky and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia.) As I’ve written before, it’s INCREDIBLY helpful for us as playwrights to see new plays.
New play festivals are a bit like Fashion Week – you get a preview of the new season – not what will be hanging on the rack at Nordstrom’s, but what will be listed in the season ticket brochure at theatres around the country.
You can also spot trends. Not exposed zippers and the Pantone color of the year, but what playwrights are doing in their work that keeps showing up all the time.
Here’s a few of the emerging trends spotted at the NNPN’s festival:
- Direct Address: several plays used this device. It works as shorthand, delivering internal monologues and exposition in an efficient manner. Though to me as an audience member, it doesn’t have the same resonance as a scene between two characters. There’s blood on the floor when characters are confronting each other. You can’t look away. The energy literally bounces off the wall. When there’s sexual chemistry, we’re right there as peeping Toms, blushing and getting aroused and wondering what’s going to happen next. And even long monologues delivered to another character seem fuller, richer, more punchy than directing them to the audience.
- Humor: nearly every one of the six plays I saw was funny. Not necessarily knock down physical humor or an evening full of zingers, but lines that made you smile or surprised you and made when you laugh out loud. Even the stage directions were funny! Serious topics handled with humor made an audience want to stay through the painful parts of the story.
- Obsession: several plays had main characters who were obsessed. Two were trying to find absent ancestors. (I’m not sure I understood WHY these characters were obsessed, but boy, is that a handy tool for getting your protagonist moving! Other characters tell them they’re crazy, but they just keep keeping on. They were like bulldozers, ploughing through obstacles on their way over the cliff.)
- Larger casts than you’d think: I know. We’ve all been told don’t dare write a play with more than three characters if you ever want to harbor a hope of production. That wasn’t the case at the NNPN’s festival! Several plays boasted of more than half a dozen actors playing lots of characters. And these are plays that at least ONE theatre wants to produce!
- Slavery: Two of the six plays dealt with slavery – one a highly comic, stylized piece set at the deathbed of Martha Washington; the other a search for the ancestor who jumped a slave ship. A third play dealt with racial injustice of the 1960’s, the generational remains of slavery.
- Absent fathers: Lots of missing parents in these plays. A father in jail whose teenager ends up in foster care, a biracial girl looking for her African-American father and grandfather, an obsessive compulsive painter who wasn’t looking for his absent father directly, but certainly his abandonment of the family fed son’s condition. Slaves sired by white masters were also fatherless. One father who seemed to be missing in action was merely hiding out in the den until he was needed to deliver the best monologue I’ve heard in a while about how you want a bitch of a mother to be on the front line fighting for you. I’m not sure what this says about our society today with all these missing dads.
- Theatricality. Not every play reached beyond the naturalistic, but there were elements of theatricality in everything. One used the tinkling of a bicycle bell to spur memory. Another structured the play backwards to forwards. One play included actors carrying on in a bad TV movie behind the main action. There were game shows, swimming fish, even a Viking ship onstage. The most successful pieces took a chance on larger-than-life happenings.
Never heard of NNPN? It’s basically a way for playwrights to get not just a world premiere, but also a second, third, and on and on – future productions. Pick a NNPN theatre. Submit your script. Next year, it could be YOUR play that sets the trends for theatres across the country.