Baltimore Playwrights Festival takes scripts from page to stage
If playwrights come alive when their works are performed on stage, that’s especially true when their dramas and comedies are produced for the first time.
Taking a new script from the page to the stage is what the Baltimore Playwrights Festival
has been doing in its 32-year history. The festival has produced plays for more than 165 playwrights and has produced more than 275 shows.
About half the submitted scripts in recent years have received a public reading, giving the playwright his first chance to hear his words spoken by real live actors. This summer's edition features four new plays produced at theaters in Baltimore City, tackling the themes of gay pride, Vietnam veterans, an unlikely couple and a woman’s memories of her grandfather. The plays run in July and August at the Fells Point Corner Theatre
, at theater partnering with Sojourner-Douglass College
and Notre Dame of Maryland University
"The feedback you get from the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is peerless. I've always been grateful for it," says Rich Espey, 47, of Towson.
Corresponding to the colors of the six horizontal stripes in the gay pride flag, his play, "The Rainbow Flag," consists of six brief one-act plays, and a new seventh, one-act play to tie them together. Each of the first six plays corresponds with a symbolic theme reflected in the flag colors. For instance, the green represents nature and yellow represents sunshine.
Espey is one of the ongoing success stories for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival (BPF). Indeed, "The Rainbow Flag" is his seventh play performed at the festival since 2001. "And I've been doing it furiously ever since."
Espey is a three-time winner of the Carol Weinberg Award for best play at the festival. He has had his plays produced in other cities and has served two years as the festival’s chair, where he says he "tried to nudge BPF into the digital age, encouraging online submissions." He also recently completed a four-year stint as board president of Single Carrot Theatre
When he isn't pursuing his love of theater, Espey is a middle school science teacher at the Park School of Baltimore
, where he uses his theatrical inclination to get students to act out a pitched battle between white blood cells.
Espey is among the writers who have flourished as a result of the festival exposure over the years. The number of plays produced each summer has waxed and waned over time. Likewise, the roster of participating local theaters changes a bit "The feedback you get from the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is peerless. I've always been grateful for it," says Rich Espey, playwright.
from year to year. Five plays were produced during the first festival in 1982 and the number has swelled to as many as 12 plays some years.
If the numbers and venues shift, the process remains essentially the same: Submissions are considered by a play-reading committee, with some of them also given public readings and a select few making it on stage for full productions.
"We offer a nurturing environment where playwrights can submit new works and get evaluations, public readings and, for the fortunate few, full productions of their scripts," says festival chair Rodney Bonds.
The festival receives between 60 and 90 scripts per year and each one gets evaluated by at least two and sometimes as many as five readers, Bonds says.
Bonds, who also has directed and acted in many of the BPF productions, says he enjoys "the challenge of giving life to a character who had never existed except in the mind of the playwright. (It) is one every actor should aspire to."
If Rich Espey is a veteran of the BPF experience, Tricia Schwaab is a newcomer. Her play "When the Letter Writers Have All Died," was inspired by her visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
in Washington, D.C., where she observed other visitors leave letters beside the names carved in marble.
"When I went to see it, I had no idea it would have that impact. I was in awe. It's really powerful," recalls Schwaab, 38, whose research for her play included talking to veterans.
Although this is her first time in the festival, she has been an actor, director and stage manager for Maryland theater companies including the defunct Columbia Community Players.
"I'm really excited, and at the same time I'm really nervous," Schwaab, says about having her play in the festival. The freelance editor by day says she hopes to get to see her play as the former Howard County resident recently moved to Nashville, Tenn.
Another BPF newcomer is Tom Stephens. This Washington, D.C., resident has been active in that city's theater scene since the late 1970s, but "I was only vaguely aware of (BPF)."
His BPF entry "Countdown to the Happy Day" will be done at Heralds of Hope Theater Co., a Silver Spring theater company formed in conjunction with Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore. This humor-laced drama about a random encounter between two people on the street in an unnamed city explores what Stephens describes as "a rough relationship, what with the socio-economic situation. There's also the gritty street language, which they use both as a weapon and as a defense."
Stephens, who is retired from a career teaching theater at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., has been working on this play for several years; this development process included a reading of the play at a new play festival in Ashland, Ore., and ongoing revisions. He says the upcoming production is "what I've been waiting for, to see what happens over a few weeks on a stage."
The Baltimore Playwrights Festival schedule
"The Rainbow Flag," by Rich Espey
Fells Point Corner Theatre
251 S. Ann St.
July 5- 28
"Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy," by Sherna Johnson
Theatrical Mining Co.
LeClerc Hall at Notre Dame University of Maryland
4701 N. Charles St.
July 11- 28
"When the Letter Writers Have All Died," by Tricia Schwaab
Theatrical Mining Co., in LeClerc Hall at Notre Dame of Maryland, University
4701 N. Charles St.
"Countdown to the Happy Day," by Tom Stephens
Heralds of Hope Theatre at Sojourner Douglass College
200 N. Central Ave.
Aug. 9- Sept. 1.
Top two photographs by STEVE RUARK. Others courtesy of Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Click photos to read captions.