Festivities Galore: An Inside Look at Some of the Largest Theatre Festivals in NYC

Anthony J. Piccione

As you all know, this past weekend was BroadwayCon: A celebration of some of the best shows and brightest stars on New York’s biggest stages. Indeed, Broadway theatre is one of the biggest draws for tourism here in the Big Apple. All year round, but especially during the summer, it’s what people from across the world come here to see. However, what people outside of the city often don’t seem to realize – and I admit, I hadn’t always realized this myself early on in my theatre career, back when I was still just a naive, teenager actor in Connecticut – is just how much brilliant new writing, and how many of the next potential Broadway performers, there are Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. When discussing these productions, the theatre festival scene is at the heart of much of this talent and creative energy.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to talk to a few of the leading individuals at some of the most acclaimed festivals in NYC – many of whom have decades of experiences in the independent theatre scene – about the work they present each year, as well as the process of bringing these festivals to audiences each year.

First, I spoke to Shaun Peknic, the Artistic Director of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity: the premiere eco-friendly theatre festival in NYC, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Mr. Peknic – a native NYC director who studied at NYU and the Lincoln Center Directors Lab before working with companies such as Nylon Fusion, Dreamscape Theater Company, and Musical Theater Factory – says that the shows in the festival “can be about anything under the sun,” while stating that they believe “that theater artists are the perfect people to motivate philanthropy, community outreach, environmental awareness, and social change. Every production in the festivity does work to support a charity of their choosing.” He also says that this year, for their 10th anniversary, they are “celebrating the amazing community of artists that have been a part of the PCTF family for the last ten years,” and are “looking to grow our community with the emerging and under-represented voices of today and tomorrow”, while also adding that this year, they are “strongly encouraging female identified, transgender, and POC artists” to apply.

After that, I interviewed Reg E. Gaines – the two-time Tony Award nominee, Grammy nominee and Bessie Award winner for Best Book/lyrics for Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk – who is now the Artistic Director of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, which takes place right before the summer and presents a wide variety of works, with an emphasis on depicting urban life in America and promoting the underrepresented communities in the arts, including women playwrights, playwrights of diverse racial backgrounds, and LGBTQ playwrights. As Mr. Gaines puts it, “the festival is a new play development program that aids in the creation of new diverse voices in American theater, and that the playwrights “participate in a supportive program that meets their individual needs to bring their play to the stage for a public performance.” Founded in 2001 and located at HERE in SoHo since 2002, Gaines says “it was founded with the purpose to build a repertoire of new American theatre that echoes the true spirit of urban life and speaks to a whole new generation. That purpose has been realized many times over, as 168 writers have created 200 plays for the stage and thousands of inspired audience members have applauded their work.”

I also had the chance to speak with Louis Lopardi of the Fresh Fruit Festival, which presents the work of LGBTQ playwrights from across the world each year. Mr. Lopardi – the festival’s founder and executive producer whose career dates back to the 1970s – says that the festival “started in 2002 under the auspices of All Out Arts, whose service mark is Fighting Homophobia and Discrimination through the Arts”, stating that they “have been for 16 consecutive years the hallmark of that mission.” He goes on to say that the festival is specifically designed “from the very earliest planning stages to be inclusive of all genres of LGBT arts and aspects of LGBT life, with a diverse array of artist ethnicity and viewpoint.”

Next up, I spoke with Gene Fisch, Jr., founder of the New York New Works Festival, which involves the work of many panelists who have worked in Broadway previously, and now hope to discover fresh talent through this festival. Mr. Fisch, Jr. says that his festival is unique, in that their Broadway and television panelists at the festival actually volunteer their time “to review the work of aspiring writers, while simply stating “I think that the number of shows that have received resources subsequent to the performances speaks for itself.” As he puts it, this festival for writers “is a chance, and that was the objective of this project: to give people a legitimate opportunity.”

Finally, I spoke with Frank Calo of Spotlight On Festivals, which – while currently on hiatus – have previously been among some of the oldest and most prominent festivals in NYC. Mr. Calo – who has an extensive background in producing that dates back to the mid-1990s – says that his company and the festivals its produced have prided themselves on the amount they do to lift up producers of various backgrounds and levels and experience. “For about 15 years, [we produced] at least one major festival a year, and sometimes up to three in one calendar year; literally producing hundreds of plays and events,” he says. “We nurtured and helped newcomers and lifted the more advanced professionals.”

As one could probably tell by speaking with each of them, the festivals they’re involved with have some a few distinct differences, which make them unique. This is also reflected in the application process of each of them, with many festivals tending to be quite inclusive of newcomers who bring high-quality work, while others such as the people at Spotlight On will only work with people they’re already very familiar with prior to the festival.

Yet what they all have it common is that they are all clearly looking for quality, originality and diversity in their work. “We are looking for artists and companies that are extremely passionate about the stories they want to tell,” said Mr. Peknic, adding that they are “looking for work that reflects the way the world actually looks and feels, not just the small slices of representation and themes that will sell best to a subscriber base.” Similarly, Mr. Gaines also touched on the importance of his festival “providing an opportunity and a stage for new voices [that] may go unheard.”

While there is plenty of great work on Broadway, it is the indie theatre scene where some of the most original and innovative work today is being presented in theatre. There was plenty of reason to believe this, when I asked each of them about some of the past productions that have been put on during past seasons, and what has become of the playwrights behind them, ever since. “[One of our shows] was immediately approached by two of our panelists wanting to see a full script, and [another] panelist made a comment regarding a finalist in the Festival that they would option it tomorrow,” said Mr. Fisch, Jr. of the Broadway panelists at the New Works Festival, while Mr. Lopardi noted how past seasons of the Fresh Fruit Festival highlighted the diversity within the LGBTQ community, including, but not limited to, “programs on openly Out Muslim playwrights, Tamil and Communist Chinese spoken word artists and filmmakers, [and] an entire evening dedicated to Native American “Two-Spirit” people.”

As anyone who’s been involved as a producer in the independent theatre scene knows all too well, it’s not always an easy task to mount a full production, much less an entire festival that’s presenting them. It’s a reality which many of them noted in the interview. Gaines pointed to the challenges of securing funding for new and emerging artists, and the fact that funding from Washington D.C. continues to be caught up in a budget showdown, while Peknic noted the reality that – while the support received from fellow artists in festivals such as the Planet Connections Theatre Fesitivity helps – being an artist often can feel isolating, at certain times.

Yet judging by each of their answers, they all find more reward and challenge in the work they do, and that their passion for bringing new works to New York audiences hardly ever wavers. “Independent theatre is how we experience new voices! This is where we go to see where we are as a society, to see how life affects different people. This is how we live outside of our own little worlds,” said Fisch Jr., as Lopardi added that “New York City has always been a crucible for new, exciting, imaginative work that pushes the envelope in truly new directions, and the most exciting risk-takers by necessity are always in the independent theatre scene.”

I brought up to each of them the topic of the summer season, which is a busy time not just for indie theatre, but also for tourism. All of them seemed to agree that tourists should certainly explore beyond Broadway during their stay in the city. Mr. Fisch, Jr. remarked that “it’s independent theatre that avails itself as readily accessible to the masses,” and that it “allows us to step into a different world and sip from the cup of experiences as conveyed by actors not five feet from where you sit.” Meanwhile, Mr. Peknic fondly recalled how some of his favorite theatre experiences were “in black box theaters below 14th Street”, including a recent experimental piece he saw at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club that he said “rocked his world”, while also noting both affordability and the fact that tourists “will get to experience neighborhoods that are far more interesting than Times Square.” Then, others – such as Mr. Calo – simply said: “Diversity and variety! My God, you can see everything in independent theatre. So much talent, it is ridiculous!”

When I asked each of my questions during the interview process, some of the answers I got from each of these individuals were different from others. However, if there’s any one overriding consensus, it’s that their passion and enthusiasm for the future hasn’t wanted. Peknic says “[W]e are getting submissions from some amazing artists that are just hearing about our festivity for the first time. It is so important to support the arts and social change in the rapidly changing world we are living in today.” Meanwhile, Gaines says that he is once again excited to “see a new batch of playwrights create their plays for the stage,” while Lopardi says that because of a “short term but very welcome increase in funding, we have been able to extend not just our outreach efforts, but also our support staff to an extraordinary degree this year,” while also noting the addition of new programs involving music and poetry, in addition to the Fresh Fruit Main Stage shows. Fisch Jr. notes that even today, the New Works Festival that he founded “has helped a great many people compelling a deluge of feedback from both panelists to participants that it has to be done again,” adding that such “enthusiasm and love” still gets him going even today, while even Calo said after the interview that all the talking in this interview about past festivals had “gotten [his] juices flowing again!!”

Indeed, it should be fascinating to see what each of these festivals will have in store for NYC audiences in the future, as all of their creative juices continue to flow going into their next seasons...

To learn more about the Planet Connections Theatre Festival, please visit www.planetconnections.org.

To learn more about the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, please visit www.duafnyc.com.

To learn more about the Fresh Fruit Festival, please visit www.freshfruitfestival.com.

To learn more about the New York New Works Festival, please visit www.nynwtheatrefestival.com.

To learn more about Spotlight On Festivals, please visit www.spotlighton.org.


Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.

Photo: Fresh Fruit Festival