Monday, June 25, 2007

Interview - Mead Hunter - JAW 2007 Preview

June 25, 2007

Followspot recently spoke with Mead Hunter, Literary & Education Director at Portland Center Stage, about the upcoming 2007 JAW (Just Add Water), A Playwrights Festival, which takes place July 12-23 at PCS.

PDF of the full interview here.


Follow Spot said...

Followspot: Hi Mead. Tell us a little about what to expect at JAW this year.

Mead Hunter: Our Festival poster this year says WE PLAY ROUGH – that’ll give you an idea. Expect a wild year, this being our first one in our new home in the Armory. In the past, when we were tenants downtown, so much was not in our control, logistically. Now we have a building where we can literally fill every nook and cranny. And the Armory has many nooks and many crannies, believe me. But also look for us to expand out of the building a little, even in this inaugural outing.

FS: Where are this year’s JAW playwrights in their careers?

MH: When you count up how many playwrights are involved in JAW 2007 in one way or another, it comes to an astounding 23 different writers. If you include the playwrights who participate in the Commission! Commission! benefit event, it jumps to 32. And that’s not even counting the ensemble-generated pieces in You Are There, the site-specific plays.

But I bet you’re referring to the writers of the workshopped, full-length plays. The Big Four is where JAW originated, and those four plays still form the Festival’s core. So where are those writers, career-wise? As always, it’s a spectrum. Jackie Reingold, who wrote A Story about a Girl, has an established career in full stride; in addition to the many theater credits to her name, she writes for Law & Order. Marie Antoinette is by David Adjmi, a writer whose darkly funny work is just beginning to make the transition from the workshop circuit to significant productions. You’re also soon to hear a lot from Jason Grote, who is bringing Box Americana to JAW; his break-out play 1001, based on the Sheherezade story, is getting widely produced. And Dan LeFranc, whose play Bruise Easy will probably cause the most furor at JAW, is an up-and-comer whose startling, hallucinatory use of stage space is exciting imaginations and scaring directors all over the place.

New for this year are three full-length plays presented in concert form downstairs in the Studio, all by Portland writers: Cynthia Whitcomb, Matt Zrebski and Nick Zagone, all veteran writers whose plays merit national attention.

FS: How many plays do you start with in the selection process, and how long does it take to get down to the “final four”?

MH: Usually we wind up with somewhere around 150 or so scripts that we accept for reading. We’re different from most new play venues in that we vet most of the scripts prior to their submission. In this way, we garner a group of scripts we’re genuinely interested in. Does that sound harsh? It’s actually relatively humane. I’ve worked for other venues that got more than 2,000 submissions through so-called open policy systems, but then, of course, they had to summarily dismiss all but a few hundred of those just to get through the process. We only ask for scripts we actually want to read. Then we proceed to read every single play and discuss them in committee—which takes time, but it’s fair. It takes us between four and six months to make our decisions, which is a Herculean labor of love.

The Studio series came out of the realization that this was the strongest year ever for Oregon writers, yet somehow no Oregonians made it to the final four, as you call them. Kelsey Tyler, who is our Festival Producer, said: why not have a second series that celebrates our own writers? And so now we do.

FS: For one or more of the plays, tell us what interested you and why you wanted to bring the play(s) to JAW.

MH: Oh, that hurts. I want to describe them all at length. But let’s see….we were struck by Jackie’s way of delineating character. In A Story about a Girl, she’s created a character with a rich inner life who seems, to us, to be a nice enough human being. We only know something is wrong because of the way people behave toward her, and gradually we piece together that they see her differently than we do. How come? What is her disability, in the world’s eyes? Rather than answer this question definitively, the play becomes a picaresque coming-of-age story that asks us to notice and to honor one another’s essential humanity. And by extension, we admired Jackie for inventing a structure that shows us the bottomless gulf between what the world tells you and what you know to be true about yourself.

FS: Tell us a little about how the JAW process works. Once everyone assembles in Portland, what happens next? How long is each play worked on, and how much revision if any might take place before the reading?

MH: There are many different processes in the Festival, but again, let’s stick to core group. For the four workshops, everyone convenes the morning after the benefit event and spends some time with their creative teams. Then over the course of the two days, each play is read to the company, so that the group as a whole grasps the scope of the work. All during the following week we rehearse the plays, and then they’re performed for a general audience during the second weekend. Parallel to this entire time, four high school students, drawn from our Visions & Voices playwriting in the schools program, rehearse their own short plays, which we present as curtain raisers before the public readings. There’s a moderated discussion following each reading, and a separate discussion for the young writers.

Simple, right? Nothing mysterious about it. Yet out of this construct comes amazing work. I think it’s because the simple intention of setting aside ten days to focus on a particular script, with no distractions, allows the playwright to blossom. Rose [Riordan, JAW’s Festival Director] and I and all of us repeatedly assure the playwrights that they need not write a word. We’re happy to see them rehearse the play exactly as written. But something about freedom and time and resources tend to tempt writers into action. Often the scripts are significantly different from those first read-throughs by the time we reach the public presentations.

FS: How important is a festival like JAW in helping playwrights develop new work?

MH: Festivals and workshops are vital. They really are. For the most part, it’s only through these opportunities that theaters can deepen their relationships with writers and start to create an artistic home for them. Remember a play PCS produced several years ago, Outrage? A play like that—a sprawling tangle, originally, virtually inchoate—could never go straight to production at a regional theater, where the imperative to reach box office goals is always pressing. Itamar Moses’ amazing play appeared first in JAW, and on the strength of that outing, Chris [Coleman] knew the playwright had the creative impetus to go the distance. That led to a more visceral play for Itamar, Celebrity Row, which got its world premiere here. This could never have come about through an over-the-transom submission, no matter how promising.

Just as importantly, other theaters take note of each other’s aesthetic choices. A play from last year’s JAW, A Feminine Ending, opens in New York this fall, after which South Coast Rep mounts a co-pro with PCS. All thanks to JAW? No, we’re just one of several notable factors. But the peer factor – our demonstrated belief in Sarah Treem’s writing – can be the tipping point for a playwright’s career.

FS: How does the larger national theater community view JAW?

MH: New play festivals have life spans, just like any other creative endeavor, and there’s been a buzz in the national network about some of the long-established festivals sliding into desuetude. One of the largest festivals, the Mark Taper Forum’s New Play Festival, has been shelved altogether because of a sea change in the artistic leadership. Smaller, scrappier festivals like JAW are often better able to take on the more innovative work, and give the border-crossing writers a leg up. For every national figure who attends JAW in person, we gets calls from several more as soon as the Festival’s closed, wanting to know which writers might be good for their theaters.

FS: So out of town observers attend JAW?

MH: They certainly do, though I’m embarrassed to say that we’ve neglected that aspect of the Festival in recent years, while we lived through the fever pitch of the transition into the Armory. Maybe you remember that the opening of the Armory, which was a major civic event, happened very much in the public eye…..all right, I’ll stop with the excuses. This year we have visitors from as near as Seattle and Ashland and as far away as New York. But next year we’ll have more. It’s an important aspect of the Festival to cultivate, actually. The more the movers and shakers of the new play universe expect to see each other at JAW, the likelier they are to pop for the trip—because it amounts to multitasking, you see? They can hobnob with their fellow wizards, exchange gossip, meet some new artists or strengthen ties with familiar ones, and have fun while they’re at it.

Also, the more attention we’re able to garner for our writers, the likelier it is that those plays will enter quickly into the American repertoire. This can backfire, actually, so you become a victim of your own success, in a way. I’m proud that JAW plays went on to their first productions at Louisville three years in a row, but that does mean we were scooped on getting that world premiere status.

FS: JAW feels like a success to you when…

MH: When playwrights come away from JAW feeling like they gained new insight into what they’re up to with writing for performance. And when audiences tell us they they’re thrilled to participate in the evolution of original work.

FS: You read a lot of new American plays all the time. Can you comment on any interesting trends you’re seeing?

MH: Well, this year was different in that we read a lot of excellent scripts that were bleak. I mean: so relentlessly dark and harrowing that we had to struggle to find scripts that presented a range of feeling, instead of just despair. I think this reflects the nation’s temper right now. The sense of being stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, and of the clock ticking for the entire planet, is widespread. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing a lot of plays with characters who grapple with the enormity of existence.

That much said, playwrights are finding thrilling ways to tell their stories. Some, like David Adjmi, have a way of inserting the surreal into the quotidian. Others, like Dan LeFranc and Jason Grote, are using the stage in ways that were inconceivable not so long ago, heedless of how theaters will cope with their startling stage demands. That is a positive trend – writers who think of live performance as opportunity rather than limitation.

FS: Will there be any new events at JAW this year?

MH: Oh yes. In addition to the Studio readings, we’ll have a pre-Festival event on July 12: a workshop presentation of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion, which will have its world premiere at PCS next spring. 3:30pm, come on down! For Equity reasons, we can’t advertise this presentation, so consider this a personal invitation -- a followspot special!

Also, on July 20 we kick off the public weekend with Portland’s swath of Suzan-Lori Parks’ epic series, 365 Days/365 Plays. This is a national event happening all through 2007 at theaters everywhere. In JAW, this is a group show involving PCS, Many Hats, the children of Self-Enhancement, Inc, defunkt theatre, Miracle Theatre Group and skinner/kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE.

Oh! And did I mention? Thanks to our very generous and enlightened sponsors, all events are now free of charge. No tickets necessary. Just first come, first served, so get there early.

FS: Where do you take visiting theater people to show them Portland? Any favorite spots, restaurants, bars?

MH: My favorite afternoon involves shuttling visitors over to Palio, a terrific, personable little coffee and cake café at the center of Ladd’s Addition. Afterward we take a peaceful stroll through the neighborhood. People are always impressed that they’re only minutes from downtown; while standing in the Circle green you can see the skyscrapers across the river, yet it’s so quiet that you feel far away. If we stay in Ladd’s long enough, we walk up to Castagna Café for a martini and a meal – the Café has the best burgers in town, in my opinion.

FS: Thanks for your time, Mead!

MH: My pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview! How fascinating to learn more about what goes into JAW.

One thing I'd like to add is that this year it's all FREE!

Joan said...

Portland is so fortunate to have Mead Hunter there.

Mead said...