Long Wharf Theatre’s Contemporary American Voices Festival gives New Haven residents a rare treat – a chance to see exciting plays that are brand new and, more importantly, still being worked on. From October 20th-22nd, Long Wharf will offer three staged readings of new works by Chris Chen, Jonathan Payne and Jen Silverman. With two days of rehearsal and minimal staging, actors will give voice to new pieces followed by post-show talkbacks with the creative team.
To learn more about the festival, I spoke to Christine Scarfuto, Long Wharf’s literary manager, about how she chose these scripts and why new works are so important to the theater. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you involved with the festival?
CS: I curate the festival. I basically read scripts all year long, probably reading about 150 scripts for this project specifically, looking for three plays that we'd want to produce for the festival here. I know it sounds like a lot of scripts to read, which it is, but the type of play we're looking for is pretty specific. We don't have a lot of rehearsal time for each of the readings, so we're looking for new plays that are pretty close to being done that can really benefit from being heard in front of a live audience. Some writers want to hear their play out loud and see it in front of an audience, and may make some adjustments.
Other writers are going in with the idea of 'I know I want to work on this section of the play and figure out how to rework it.' But all are still pieces that are in development. We're also looking for plays that haven't had a lot of professional tracking yet. We want it to be a platform that helps the writers get some traction on their play.
How does the festival work?
CS: It's actually a really fun event. We have readings on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 p.m. and a reading on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. For each of those readings we're doing a happy hour before the show where we're offering half-price drinks and a chance to mingle with some of the artists. Then we have the shows. All three are very different, but they're all very exciting and adventurous new work. After the performance, we do a discussion with the writer and director where the audience has a chance to ask questions. I think it would be fun to come to all three readings and see how the themes speak to each other.
What are the plays?
CS: The first play is called 'Passage' by Chris Chen. Chris recently won an Obie for his play ‘Caught.’ 'Passage' is a riff on E.M. Forrester's novel 'Passage To India' about the British occupation in India. But in 'Passage,' the countries are abstracted, so instead of Britain and India you have Country X and Country Y. It allows you to see these issues of oppression and prejudice and colonialism in a really objective light. It's a very smart play. Feels very relevant to some of the issues happening in our country today.
The second play is 'Poor Edward' by Johnathan Payne. It's inspired by the destruction of the homeless community in San Jose, California. In the play, there's a couple named Opal and Eddie and they're living in a hovel as their homeless community around them is being bulldozed. They're really looking for anything that can give their life a new hope. It's a very dark comedy. You can certainly see inspiration of Samuel Beckett and Suzan-Lori Parks and Edward Albee. Jonathan, the writer, in addition to being a playwright is also a full-time social worker in New York City. He works for a program that helps homeless people go to college. So, he really has a deep understanding of these issues and, even though the play is a theatricalized version of it, you really feel the weight of those issues.
Then, 'All The Roads Home' by Jen Silverman. Jen recently had a play at Yale Rep called 'The Moors[NG1] .' It's a very heartwarming story about three generations of women. It starts in the 1950s and you get to see the life of a women. You see her in three stages of her life - daughter, mother, grandmother - and how their live choices effect the next generation. You see the sacrifices these women make, the hurdles they have to jump over. It's really moving and funny and has the kind of theatrical energy that's true of a lot of Jen's plays.
Why is it important for Long Wharf to work on new pieces?
CS: New work is really the life-blood of the theater. If we don't support new work, the art form will stagnate. It's very important for every theater to support the development of new work because it's what really inspires the next generation of great writers. But also, Long Wharf is dedicated to producing new work. This is a really wonderful way for us to make new relationships with writers and also introduce some writers we're really interested in to our audience, so that down the line we can produce their work and our audience will have some frame of reference. It's the beginning of a relationship - both for us and for our audience - with these artists.
For more information, visit www.longwharf.org.