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New Plays Festival goes online in 2020

After nearly 30 years of encouraging playwrights in the creation of new works, the Ashland New Plays Festival’s public readings will go on as scheduled this fall — but online instead of onstage.

The festival kicks off Sunday, Oct. 18, with a virtual playwriting workshop, followed by readings of the five winning plays Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 21-25.

The playwriting workshop features host playwright Beth Kander and 2020’s five winning playwrights — Ian August, Kari Bentley-Quinn, William Cameron, David Hilder and Grace Mcleod. It will be conducted from 3 to 5 p.m. on Zoom.

“The workshop, ‘Writing Across the Distance,’ is designed to help inspire students to write even when the world around us is unpredictable at best,” said Kara Lewis, administrative assistant.

“Students are asked to join the session ready to write, with pen and paper in hand and a preferred writer fuel to sip at their side,” she said. The fee is $15.

A panel discussion follows from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., open to the public at no charge. Winning playwrights will talk about their backgrounds, their writing processes, and what to expect from their plays being presented later in the week.

Play submissions were capped at 500 — 450 plus 50 fee-free spaces for people of color as part of ANPF’s diversity initiative. There was stiff competition for the five winning spots on the festival program.

Throughout the selection process, plays are read without knowledge of the authors’ names. During a screening process, plays are given a yes or no vote in terms of moving on to subsequent rounds, which usually eliminates 55 to 65 plays.

In subsequent rounds, plays are scored to determine the 30 or so highest-ranking plays, which every reader then reads. The top 10 are submitted to the artistic director, assisted by the associate artistic director and host playwright, for selection of the winners.

Readers began the process in group leaders’ homes around the first of the year, but switched to Zoom meetings when it became unsafe to meet in person.

Artistic director Kyle Haden was impressed with how seamlessly the reading process moved online.

“I believe we kept 60 of the original 63 readers,” Haden said. “They were just as committed to doing the work virtually as they were in person. I was so thankful that the sense of community translated online.”

Haden, who lives in Pittsburgh, is in his sixth year as artistic director.

“We spend several months in the Rogue Valley each year,” he said, “and consider it our second home. My wife is from there, and we love it.”

The plays

Play readings begin Wednesday, Oct. 21.

August’s “Zero” is a darkly comedic allegory about three reform-school teens who discover the danger of simple solutions.

Bentley-Quinn’s “Hyannis” is a multifaceted drama set in a small Cape Cod town where a family grapples with healing and despair as it adjusts to the return of one of its own from his second stint in rehab.

“Truth Be Told” by Cameron is an exploration of the nature of objective truth, and how it’s distorted and manipulated, as a grief-stricken mother of a mass shooter seeks to convince a true-crime writer that her son was framed.

“Those Days Are Over” by Hilder is a comedy about five estranged sisters who meet at their childhood home in the wake of their mother’s death.

McLeod’s “The Communist Revolution: A Ninth-Grade European History Project” is a tale of parents vs. kids, house vs. tent, and capitalism vs. communism — a dark comedy about rich white liberals whose desire to be “good” runs up against their own fragility.

Two of the playwrights are repeat winners. August won two years ago for his play “The Excavation of Mary Anning,” and Hilder won in 2010 for “The Insidious Impact of Anton.”

Each play will be presented twice during the festival. See ashlandnewplays.org to buy tickets and see details.

Several of the actors will be familiar to ANPF and OSF theatergoers. Among them are Kate Berry, Kris Danford, Miriam Laube, Terri McMahon, Mia Morris, DeLanna Studi, Amy Kim Waschke and Rex Young.

The decision to go virtual for the 2020 festival was made by the board June 1, however, Haden and associate artistic director Jackie Apodaca said they saw the writing on the wall a few weeks before as the pandemic showed no signs of slowing in Oregon.

“We were disappointed about not being able to gather in person,” Haden said. “That’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year. But we saw an opportunity to pull in past collaborators who weren’t in the Rogue Valley, and also a chance to give folks across the country the ability to see what we do. So that’s exciting.”

Lewis is heading the festival’s online tech team. She will be joined in the command booth by an assistant and a production stage manager.

“I’m coordinating the technology for our virtual offerings,” she said. “The production stage manager will be working closely with five assistant stage managers on each of the plays as they’re developed during rehearsals prior to the festival.”

ANPF is using Showtix4U as its ticketing and streaming platform. The readings will be performed using Zoom and livestreamed through Showtix4U.

“The platform includes a chat feature,” Lewis said, “so audiences can share their questions, which will be answered during the post-show talkback.”

The talkbacks will be led by host playwright Kander, returning for her fifth ANPF fall festival and participating this year from Chicago. Although primarily writing fiction these days, she still pens plays in addition to having other creative plates spinning.

People can watch the livestream on their computers and mobile devices. If they have the capability to cast their mobile device screen to their smart TV, they can watch in a larger format.

Board President Peggy Moore is excited about the 2020 festival.

“We know it will be different, but still intense, interesting and professional,” she said. “And we’ll be offering new works that hopefully will go on to full productions in the future.”

Moore says the financial impact of the pandemic is complicated.

“We received some additional grant money that has really helped,” she said. “We won’t rent a venue this year, but we have added expenses in technology and in more staff dedicated to the technology. We pay equity wages, but our ticket prices will be less than if attendance were in person. So, income will be affected.”

Are there other ways people can support the festival?

“Well, there are a lot of people in the Rogue Valley,” Haden said, “particularly our friends and families in Phoenix and Talent, who need help a lot more than we do right now.

“That said, we want to keep telling stories that interest and affect our community, and we’re always looking for folks who want to become readers and help select the plays we bring to Ashland each October.”

People can find information on the ANPF website about how to participate as a reader.

“Ticket sales aren’t enough to cover the costs,” Haden added. “People who’d like to support the creation of new work directly can consider becoming members of ANPF.”

Tickets to individual readings are priced on a sliding scale, starting at $10. Because ANPF is streaming on the Showtix4U platform, audiences can view the readings without needing intermediary software like Zoom.

You can reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

The New Plays Festival annual reader appreciation party, usually a catered event where the winning playwrights are announced, this year was held on the Zoom digital platform, a screen shot from the event shown above. Kara Q. Lewis photo.
From left are Elizabeth Gudenrath, Amy Kim Waschke, Robert Sicular, and Patrick Russell at ANPF's 2019 reading of "The Night Climber" by Joshua Rebell. Kara Q. Lewis photo.