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When Ben Feldman and Mamie Gummer take the stage this weekend, think of the NEA

Ask what it takes to create new theater at South Coast Repertory, and you will get an interesting answer.

It takes seven playwrights, six directors and five dramaturgs.

Forty-four actors. Seven interns. Design teams. Technical crews. Administrative support.

And more.

That’s what’s required just to stage this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, where South Coast Rep will present readings and staged productions of seven new plays. The National Endowment for the Arts provided $50,000 this year to partially cover participants’ pay as well as travel and lodging expenses. The first fully staged production in the 2017 festival — “The Siegel,” written by Michael Mitnick, directed by Casey Stangl and starring Ben Feldman and Mamie Gummer — opens for press this weekend at the Costa Mesa theater. The readings take place April 21-23, trying out new work by Donald Margulies, Amy Freed, Lauren Yee and Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm.

“There are so few institutions that foster new theatrical work in this country — I can think only of a handful. And no one does it better or more consistently than SCR’s Pacific Playwrights Festival,” said Julia Cho, whose plays have been featured in the festival four times, from “99 Histories” in 2002 to “Office Hour” in 2016. “The amount of new work they commission and the degree of support they offer — it’s unparalleled.”

The festival provides a place for writers to test new projects, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and push the art closer to its final form. “With each play, I was able to experiment and try new things,” Cho said by email.

In his Times review, critic Charles McNulty championed “Office Hour” for the way it explored how we interact with “the other” at a time when a divided country is awash in mistrust and intolerance. “Difference, long accustomed to being disparaged, is increasingly seen as a threat,” he wrote in explaining why Cho’s drama feels so relevant.

The work launched by Pacific Playwrights also has helped to raise the profiles of women and people of color writing for the stage. Rajiv Joseph, Lynn Nottage, José Rivera and Qui Nguyen are among the playwrights to bring their voices to the festival since it started in 1998. Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama, had a reading there before moving on to Broadway.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winner “Rabbit Hole” traces its roots to the festival, as does “Marjorie Prime,” the Jordan Harrison mind-bender that went on to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway. (It also spawned a feature film with Jon Hamm that played at Sundance in January.)

Pulling back to see the larger picture, South Coast Rep Artistic Director Marc Masterson emphasized the importance of NEA funding not only to the Pacific Playwrights Festival but also to the life of his company in general.

“Simply put, without the NEA there would be no SCR,” he said in an interview on the day President Trump released a budget proposal calling for the elimination of the agency.

Cho also pointed to the bigger picture.

“I think in many ways it's the symbolic value of the NEA that moves me the most,” she said. Some people may believe the arts should be funded through private means, not through government, she said. “But having a national institution sends an unmistakable signal that we, as a country, believe in the importance of the arts. ... The arts are not by and for a group of elite artists out there somewhere; they're for all of us. As such, they're not a luxury; they're an essential part of any healthy, dynamic society.”

“L.A. Without the NEA” is a daily series looking at a different community group, how its NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn’t result and what the cultural landscape would look like if that program were to disappear. Look for past and future installments at latimes.com/LAwithouttheNEA.

 

 

craig.nakano@latimes.com

Twitter: @cnakano

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