It’s been six years since Spokane’s Civic Theatre last hosted its Playwrights’ Forum Festival, which was an annual tradition for 25 years until it was retired in 2008.
But Civic has been going through an extensive artistic overhaul in the past year, and in keeping with the changes, it’s brought the festival back, premiering six new short plays by Northwest writers.
“I love having a forum for new works,” said Matt Harget, this year’s festival director. “These are all brand new things, and there’s something pretty amazing about being able to create a brand new show, especially for the actors and directors.”
The plays featured in the forum were commissioned specifically for it – Harget estimates he and his committee read through more than 40 submissions – with the caveat that they run shorter than half an hour. Of the six that were selected as the best, five of them are in competition to be selected as the best of the bunch. (The sixth, titled “Office Hours,” is out of competition as it was written by Bryan Harnetiaux, Civic’s Playwright-in-Residence.)
Harget says the presented plays run the gamut from conceptual comedy to more experimental think pieces, and there’s enough variety to please just about any audience sensibility. “If one show doesn’t grab you, there’ll be another one coming up in a few minutes,” Harget said.
Each play has its own director and cast – they’re not just dry script readings – and there are sets, costumes and lighting cues. Playwright Matthew Weaver said he asked his friend Will Gilman, the winner of 2008’s forum, for advice upon learning his play had been chosen. “He said, ‘Be real nice to your director and just have fun with it,’ ” Weaver said. “Then it turned out Will was the director, so that worked out real well.”
Weaver’s play, “The Girl Wore Red Licorice,” is the only work from a Spokane writer to make it into the competition, and he’s been working closely with Gilman during rehearsals. “It’s been very involved,” he said of his input on the production. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Can we try this?’ And he’ll say, ‘I was just about to suggest that, so yes.’ ”
Although Civic’s seasons generally rely on such theatrical stalwarts as “Gypsy” and “The Mousetrap,” Harget said that approaching and working through all-new material is a refreshing exercise for the Civic’s veteran actors and crew.
“You’re not stuck playing a character the way it’s been played by other actors,” he said. “This isn’t like some Broadway show that’s come to Spokane. This is a show that’s being created right here.”
It’s really a win-win: Not only does the Playwrights’ Forum allow Civic to present material audiences can’t see anywhere else, but it’s a chance for writers to see their work come alive with the same care and attention put into the Broadway staples.
“This is an opportunity to put your work out there, to develop connections with the artistic community and the theatrical community,” Weaver said. “I’m hoping this will translate to future opportunities.”
“I would compare it to having the chance to see the first show from Tennessee Williams or Neil Simon or somebody like that,” Harget said. “Some of these writers may go on to do something like that.”