Arts Desk

The Omnivore’s Buffet: D.C. Playwrights on the Locally Grown Festival

By design, the stars of any staged reading are words and voices. And so the reading workshops that help make up Theater J's Locally Grown Festival are text laboratories; the voices of both playwright and audience are essential to the experiment. None of the readings on the festival slate involve finished works. Following each reading, the writers field questions and feedback from the audience. Those who don't care for public speaking, or want more time to digest what they've heard, can write their suggestions on program inserts or e-mail the playwrights.

The festival, which began this month with a fully staged production of The Religion Thing (reviewed in this week's Washington City Paper), represents an enormously diverse set of interests on the part of the playwrights and a variety of approaches to composition and feedback.  And the plays are in very different states of completion.

The Prostate Dialogues is solo performer Jon Spelman's comedic retelling of his experience, and those of others, with prostate cancer and its effect on his relationships and sense of mortality.  "I don't feel like I'm a character," says Spelman, "but a persona of myself, a persona of other people or a representative of them...I'm more concerned here about exactly how people said what they said...how an oral historian might do it."

Laura Zam's one-woman show Married Sex deals in part with sexual trauma. "With such tricky subject matter," says Zam, "I am relying on any response I can get to know when people are connecting to the material, and when they are not...I'm still writing the last scene, though I know how the play ends. So I'd call this all a first draft."

"The audience will get my fourth draft of the script, and I did that on purpose," says Jacqueline Lawton, whose play The Hampton Years examines the mentoship of African-American artist John Biggers by the Jewish artist Viktor Lowenfeld.  "I personally would never let the audience see the first draft of anything I write. First of all, it's three hours long and I don't think anyone would sit through it. And it's a boiling hot mess."

Lawton's play, to an even greater extent than the others, exists because of this festival. The initial impulse for her concept was the result of a conversation "which may or may not have taken place in a bar" between Lawton and Theater J's Shirley Serotsky.  "The black and Jewish relationship is deep and complex...We have marched arm-in-arm demanding equality, justice, and civil rights. We have fought against one another, standing at arm’s length in hatred, mistrust, and confusion. I look forward to a time of healing in our respective communities and hope that this play can contribute to that process."

With Hot & Cold, a play about an interfaith engagement and the accidental exposure of two lab workers to a virus, Gwydion Suilebhan clearly draws from an entirely separate well. Of the scientific community, he says, "I feel as if ultimately that is the only place where we are developing new knowledge in the world and that the rest of us are just spinning our wheels...  I consider it the major task of my work as a playwright to help our culture accommodate the new knowledge that scientists gather day after day. It means finding human ways to talk about science, stories that show people trying to adapt to difficult ideas that are going to really affect their lives."

While text is the focus and writers the ones in the hot seat, fielding questions and feedback, collaboration is no small part of the festival.  "I like to get actors involved in the process as early as possible," says Stephen Spotswood.  Spotswood plans to present the third draft of Cold November Light, about a wheelchair-bound woman and a painter with high-functioning autism who share a sense of isolation from society.  "They have to go up in front of an audience and make this thing work, and consequently they pick up on details and nuances that would otherwise go totally unnoticed."

Suilebhan echoes this sentiment when speaking about actors who can "ensoul your characters and help you think in a more poetic way about the story."  Of his festival collaborator and friend, John Lescault, Suliebhan says: "He was playing the role of Max in my play Let X.  It was the last performance, minutes before curtain and I saw him backstage. He cornered me and he said, 'I really need to talk to you about this one line. There's a word'—he was dead serious—'there's a word that's tripping me up and I want to try this other thing. Are you OK with it?  And I fell a little more in love with him right at that moment. I said, 'Of course, let's never give up!' So the fact that he's in this workshop with me makes me feel like Superman has Batman. Or actually the other way around: He's Superman and I'm Batman. "

The most ambitious collaboration will be between the creative team and the audience that will help shepherd these new plays toward their most moving expression.  During these early stages, beauty is in the ear of the listener. "The most important thing," says Jon Spelman, "is hearing from them as an audience while on stage.  I can tell when they're laughing and generally I can tell when they are listening."

Remaining Staged Readings:

COLD NOVEMBER LIGHT by Stephen Spotswood

Monday, January 23 at 7:30 p.m.

THE PROSTATE DIALOGUES by Jon Spelman

Tuesday, January 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, February 12 at 5:00 p.m.

Sunday, February 19 at 5:00 p.m.

HOT AND COLD by Gwydion Suilebhan

Monday, February 6 at 7:30 p.m.

MARRIED SEX by Laura Zam

February 13 at 7:30 p.m. (Presented in rep with The Prostate Dialogues)

Visit the Theater J website for details.

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