Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guest Blog Post: New Play Opps in Orlando (from Al Pergande)

I'm still working on expanding my (ad-hoc) survey of American professional theaters, to see how many are actually producing new full-length plays and how many of them are doing writers from their own back yards.  As part of that series, I've invited playwrights from various regions to write guest blog posts to both continue the survey, and to tell us a bit about the climate for new plays (and opportunities) in their necks of the woods.

I'm grateful to fellow playwright and Binge member, Al Pergande, for starting us off with a look at production opportunities for new plays in Orlando:

New Play Production Opportunities in Orlando, FL
By Al Pergande
Orlando, FL

Orlando is a classic post war sprawl city - miles of cul-de-sac subdivision are punctuated with generic strip centers and big box retailers, vestiges of orange groves lurk in back yards along with confused alligators and incipient sinkholes. A light frost can bring the city to its knees, although hurricanes and pronouncement of divine rage for our sins of flying rainbow flags pass nearly unheeded. There's a vibrant and diverse arts community in Orlando, largely driven by the creative types employed by the major theme parks. It's not a bad place to write new plays, and even the budding film maker has good odds of pulling off a hit.

The 800 pound gorilla in town is the "Orlando Shakespeare Theater in partnership with UCF." Their official name is always in flux depending on mysterious forces and portents, so they've sort of thrown in the towel and decided it's OK if we all just call it "The Shakes." I'm not sure that’s really clearer, but at least it's easy to spell. The operation occupies a rambling ex-museum in Loch Haven Park and it forms the defacto center of the Theater District in Orlando. A half a dozen other theaters lie within a five mile radius, and while it's no Leicester Square winos are rare, the location convenient and parking typically not a hassle. Oh, yeah, here's an important Orlando fact:  if you don’t have a car, you're pretty much stuck.

The Shakes hosts "PlayFest! The Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays."  "PlayFest!" began under a slightly different name in 2004 as an attempt to apply a Fringe Festival approach to marketing the play development process as entertainment in itself.  Originally, a number of raw scripts were fed into public workshops allowing the audience to see a show develop. You bought a button (proceeds went to the Festival) and paid a small fee to enter the theatre (that money went to the writer) and you watched the writer try to figure out how to "fix" their play. There's not a large market for that sort of intimate agony, and the focus has shifted to working with the National New Play Network. While it's still possible to get in if you're local, the emphasis is on showcasing higher profile writers with shows that are either beginning New York runs or have just completed them and are undergoing a final tune tune-up process. Theresa Rebeck and Olympia Dukakis have been recent "headliners."

The PlayFest site specifies "full-length plays and musicals based on, or inspired by works of classic literature, or historic events and/or persons and profound advancements in science." In reality, there's some flexibility in what sees the stage, although they really love one man adaptations of public domain works. Biographical pieces and Shakespeare adaptations get attention, and there's often an attempt to squeeze wordy Victorian novels into 90 minutes and still include all the sub plots. The Dickensians live by the mantra "I'm in love with his language" but confuse adaptation with replication.

PlayFest Submissions are free (yeah!) but they get tons of them so competition is tough. You must supply your own cast and director, find rehearsal space and maybe build a set. The Shakes can offer names, or you can hire your friends.  The 2011 festival runs in April (right on top of the Florida Film Festival, another monster event.) You can expect next year's deadline to fall in late summer, but keep an eye on their website.

A much easier path to an Orlando production is through Playwrights' Round Table I'm on the board of directors, so this is plug for my group. PRT is a small writers group that typically does two Ten Minute play festivals each year (Launch and Summer Shorts), often performs at the Orlando Fringe Festival and occasionally does productions of One Acts or Full length plays. In order to be produced you must be a member ($30 annual dues) and Central Florida Playwrights are preferred. One of the Shorts programs is filmed by local public access channel Orange TV, and for this show PRT requires a writer and director for on-air interviews. PRT productions budgets are shoestring, but the writer doesn’t have to handle the casting and production details, although they are encouraged to participate.  To aid the writing process, there are monthly readings open to the public: you can bring a script, and they will read at least part of it. PRT calls for scripts for each production opportunity; a secretive committee reads and selects the best shows for production. I recommend reading scripts for a company like this; you'll soon see how you stack up as a writer. You don’t need to be a member to read or submit, but to get produced you must join. 

While blind submissions of scripts to far-away theatres CAN result in a production, you likely won’t be involved in any of the details, and if you pop for the road trip you may be horribly disappointed by the results. More importantly, you'll miss the feedback from the director about what works or doesn’t work. If you're not getting acceptances on blind submissions but you're committed to seeing your worlds on stage, you'll have to tackle the dread "self production." Short of starting your own community theatre, the easiest way to do that is through a Fringe Festival. The Orlando International Fringe Festival  is currently the oldest and most financially successful fringe in the US. (There are older Fringe Festivals in Canada and England). The Orlando Fringe follows CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) rules, one of which is shows are completely unjuried. That means ANYONE can put in for a slot, and if you get though the lottery you get a space, a tech, a box office, some sort of insurance and a crowd to market into. Cast, sets, publicity, directors and back stage drama is all your responsibility. And there are REALLY great parties, often as not at your house.

There are a 16 US Fringe Festivals as of my last Google search, and not all of them follow CAFF rules. Under CAFF rules it is possible to make money and there are people who work the US and Canada circuit and make money. One artist I know is rumored to live on his Fringe proceeds, although he has a rather monkish lifestyle. It's relatively easy to get in to the US festivals although some of the Canadian ones are nearly impossible. This year Orlando picked 65 shows from 90 applications, give or take. Oddball experimental work is encouraged; nudity acceptable, full length dramas tend to die, and the public attendance and gossip in the beer tent is a brutal indicator of the quality of your work. The down side is you and your team will bust your butts to get the show up, an opening night screw up can be fatal, and you're likely to spend a good bit of your own cash and not make a profit. I highly recommend it if you're serious and not afraid of hard work and ridicules. I'll be staging my third Orlando Fringe show this May.

Outside of these operations, Orlando offers some specialized new play production opportunities. Valencia State College holds an annual Florida Playwright competition that is open to state writers. They select one full length play a year for premiere. The Women's Playwright Initiative does readings and occasional productions, and as the name implies they seek women writers and female themes. Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park  is an extremely small space that has pulled off some technically ambitious new works by area writers. The manager Wade Hair works with new material on a regular basis, and I've seen some intriguing and some awful material at his late night productions. In past years a restored movie house "The Plaza Theatre" hosted a short lived theatre company and ran some medium profile touring shows, but there seems to have been some financial issues and now it focuses on live concerts. But it can never hurt to ask, and the seats are very comfortable. Finally, the Orlando Shakes occasionally rents out space to producers it trusts for independent productions.

Like many things in life, you start out doing "A" and after a while you find yourself spending more time on doing "B" because you have to just to make "A" happen. After writing plays, I found myself producing them in various capacities - making posters, writing press releases, dealing with backstage romances and sitting in back of a dark room and wincing every time someone doesn't laugh at my carefully crafted jokes. There's no feeling like it.

Al Pergande is a writer, critic, and producer based in Orlando. You can read his commentary on Central Florida Theatre at He has produced shows with PlayFest!, Playwrights Round Table and The Orlando International Fringe Festival. This May he will premier his new comedy "Big Swinging Dick's Topless Bar Presents the Naked Drag Queen Farting" at the Fringe. It's rated PG, bring your mom.


Zack said...

I'm really glad that you highlighted the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's PlayFest. I had the good fortune of having two staged readings of my play, THE WEIRD SISTERS, included in PlayFest last year. My own experience was nothing like the one Al Pergrande describes.

Frankly, they treated all the playwrights like royalty. They supplied a poster, a director, a cast, rehearsal space, you name it. A picture and bio of each featured playwright was posted on every column in the lobby. We were treated with the utmost respect. I had a wonderful experience there and would highly recommend it.

Claudia said...

Interesting - it seems to be getting harder.(Production of new plays)

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks for your feedback, Zack. It's good to get multiple perspectives on a theatre and its programs.

Claudia--I think you're right (or that's what I'm trying to ultimately figure out from this survey). Actually, I think it's not that hard to get short plays produced, but it feels like it's getting much harder to get productions of full-length plays.