A spotlight for the playwrights

A lot of young scribes owe a debt to South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival. And so does Nicole Kidman.

The actress got her most recent Oscar nomination for the 2010 film "Rabbit Hole," in which she played a mother coping with her young child's death. The movie was based on the play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Before it passed that hurdle, though, it got through another tough audience: the staff of SCR, which sifts through hundreds of plays each year to select a small lineup for the annual festival.

"Rabbit Hole" debuted as a staged reading in 2005, and the next Pulitzer winner may be somewhere in the stacks that grow continuously on Kelly Miller's and John Glore's desks. Miller and Glore aren't the only SCR staffers who read new submissions — that might require more than 24 hours in a day — but as co-directors of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, they have significant clout in choosing each year's program.

The annual festival combines two full productions with a series of staged readings, in which audiences get to see plays early in their creative process; in some cases, the author rewrites part of the work before the next performance. With the next festival set to kick off in April, Miller and Glore spoke with the Daily Pilot about their methods of choosing a lineup — and the plays that, in one way or another, got away. The following are excerpts from the conversation:

When you're reading a submission for the Pacific Playwrights Festival, how long does it take before you can decide whether it's a play you want to keep reading?

John: It depends completely on the play. Sometimes you know within a few pages that this isn't going to cut the mustard — for one reason or another. It isn't necessarily that it's not a decent play; sometimes it just doesn't feel right for us. But quite often, because the level of submissions we get is pretty high across the board — we're getting submissions from reputable agents and from writers that we happen to know and often have long-term relationships with — given that fact, it's quite often the case that we'll need to read all of a play in order to make a determination about what the disposition will be, to figure out whether it gets elevated for the final round of consideration.

When I'm reading a play — and I'm speaking as somebody without the expertise you have — I can see if it's well written; I can see if it's not well written. I kind of look at one of those two things. But as somebody who has the theater experience you do, can you see things in addition to just the quality of the writing?

John: I usually do, to some extent, try to visualize what it might look like in a production, so you read the clues that the playwright gives you for that — the stage direction and the clues embedded in the dialogue — to have a sense of how it might play in real time, with live actors on the set.

Kelly: For me, the intangibles that I'm reading for are, yes, the language, yes, [that] someone's dramatic voice is really strong and excellent, but I'm also looking to see what innately in their writing makes the plays inherently theatrical, whether that's spectacle or a hint of magical realism — what elevates their excellent dramatic writing and makes it truly exceptional.

When you're determining how much rewriting a play needs, do you take audience response into account?

John: We don't do talk-backs after the PPF readings, largely because there isn't time in the schedule to allow for it, but what we do is insert in the programs a comment sheet and invite the audience to give us their written comments afterwards. And we look at those comments carefully, particularly looking for consensus, through-lines, threads that run through a lot of the comments. That tends to be the kind of thing you want to pay attention to. If a lot of audiences are confused about the same thing, or a lot of audiences fall out of the story at a certain spot or what have you, then that can often come into play in the next draft of the script.

But the more important feedback we get from an audience is the way they respond in the moment as the reading is happening. If they laugh in the right places, that's a good sign. If you're not getting the laughs you expect, that's not always a good sign. And you can tell when an audience is bored, too. They start shifting in their seats and coughing, and there's telltale behavior that lets you know an audience is not fully engaged in what they're hearing.

You had one play, "Rabbit Hole," by David Lindsay-Abaire, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Was that a very proud moment for your team when that happened?

John: It was, definitely, a proud moment, but we had kind of mixed feelings, because we had ultimately decided not to produce that play here. Actually, after it had its Pacific Playwrights Festival reading, there was discussion among the artistic leadership, and the feeling was that that was not a play they wanted to go ahead and produce. And then it went on to production in New York and won the Pulitzer Prize, so while it was wonderful that a play we commissioned and introduced to the American theater won the Pulitzer Prize, we kind of wished we produced it. [laughs]

If you could pick one play in history and just say that it had started at PPF, is there any one that you'd pick?

Kelly: I have a cheat answer, because it's a play that started here, but I don't think it was in PPF. It's Margaret Edson's "Wit."

Wonderful play.

Kelly: Correct me if I'm wrong, John, but the story goes that that came in as a 10-page sample. We have open submissions, so that even writers who are not represented can send us 10 pages of a play along with a query letter and get considered. That play came to us through that. She was not agented, Margaret Edson. We got a 10-page sample. A smart reader in the literary office at that time asked for the full script, and [founding artistic director] Martin Benson fell in love with it and directed the world premiere here. That was not a part of PPF, so I wish that that had been a part.

John: Because PPF hadn't existed yet.

Kelly: That's why it's a cheat. So we did do the world premiere of that particular play. But that's an example of how, when it's working well, our new-play pipeline can identify the best new writers and plays out there.


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