There’s a new playwrights collective in town. Last year my ears were abuzz with the debut of the collective Portland Gallery Playwrights Group, or PG2, which commandeered the Gerding atrium during the Down and Dirty at 12:30 and late night Hothouse series. PG2 is still going strong and again makes its appearance at the festival. But the debutante this year? Playwrights West (www.playwrightswest.org); though I’m sure some of them would laugh to be called debutantes as their pens and production companies are inextricably woven into the tapestry of Portland theatre history already – be sure to check out the bios on their website. On January 31, the company takes over CoHo Theater to introduce itself to Portland with short pieces penned by each playwright and unveils the author of its first production, slated for 2011.
theresa: What and who is Playwrights West? How did you get together?
Patrick: Playwrights West is a company of eight playwrights who are dedicated to presenting high-level productions of their members’ work, as well as supporting development of original theatrical work here in Portland, Oregon. Our current members include Patrick Wohlmut, William S. Gregory, Ellen Margolis, Steve Patterson, Andrea Stolowitz, Eugenia Woods, Nick Zagone, and Matthew B. Zrebski.
Many of us are alumni of PlayGroup at Portland Center Stage, the sole exception being Eugenia. We all formed Playwrights West as a result of several conversations, during which we all shared an excitement for the growing focus on new plays and new playwriting in our city, as well as a desire to do our part in helping to make Portland a thriving center for original work on the West Coast. One thing we all share in common is a desire to work here, to produce here. We love this city, and are interested in seeing it flourish as a cultural center; and we want to be a part of that.
th: Why Playwrights West? Why You? Why Now?
Patrick: Playwrights West is unique in that we are not held down to a season. We produce each play when we are both artistically and financially ready to do so. What this means is that, by taking the time to develop each play from concept to production, and by securing the resources we need to give each play the best possible first run that we can, we put ourselves in a position to not only create some exceptional theater, but to take our audiences on the “development ride,” as it were. Instead of giving people a workshop reading and making that their sole exposure to the play, they can see the whole process, ending with an honest-to-God full production. How cool is that?
Eugenia: PW provides a milieu in which both the artist and her work are supported without focusing on the market as the central concern. This model affords me tremendous freedom and an environment that carefully safeguards the development process, without sacrificing literary standards.
William: Playwrights West is an exciting local application of a current trend sweeping the forefront of American Theater: Playwrights Self-producing! The playwright has long been recognized as the genesis point for the creation of theater, so this model moves that concept from the theoretical to the actual. Since playwrights “Produce Theater” it is time for playwrights to produce theater.
Ellen: Among the many good reasons for this group of people to work together, one that I most appreciate is the ability to commit to the play each writer wants to see done locally for whatever reason–desire to speak to a local audience, logistics, cast size, personal investment, desire to develop through workshops with the artists we know here, and so on.
Matt: Simple answer. I love Portland and I want to stay in Portland! So often this city serves as a bridge for artists…a place to build a resume then dart off to NYC, LA, or Chicago. But for me – and us – this is about the belief that Portland can and should be able to sustain a working theatre artist. So we are taking the reins. And by not being enslaved to season programming, we can ensure that our shows are top notch, have well paid teams, and that full productions of new work are a focal point for Portland Theatre.
th: How will the company work in terms of being a development and/or production company? What’s the process? Who, if any, are the company’s inspirations?
Patrick: A couple of the models we have drawn upon are 13P in New York, and Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis. We have a loose production order – each playwright receives one production within that rotation. (And no, I won’t tell you who our first playwright is until our event on the 31st.) While we are still working out the specific details of our development process, the likelihood is that it will be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of each writer. I mentioned before that we want to make that process transparent up to a point. We’re not only interested in developing the play, but also the audience’s relationship to it.
That flexibility will also apply to our production process. For each play, the venue and the production team will be chosen by the playwright and the producer based on the needs of the script. We will audition and draw from the local talent pool for performers and directors. There is an incredible amount of talent and intelligence at work here in Portland’s theater community, and we intend to make optimum use of it. The play itself is chosen by the playwright; only their production order is set. Artistically, we trust each other implicitly, and as much as possible want to make the needs of each writer and her or his work be the center of our production focus.
th: What are you doing for the festival and how did that come together?
Patrick: Our piece is titled, “Introducing… Playwrights West.” The evening will consist of eight original short works, directed by PWest member Ellen Margolis, exposing our audiences to each of our individual styles and sensibilities. At the end of the evening, we will announce the first playwright we are going to produce, as well as the play that writer has chosen to produce for our first time out.
We are all very different playwrights. We knew we wanted to do something that would not only share who we are as individual writers, but give an audience an idea of our collective artistic identity as well. My own play, “People Change,” is a ghost story involving a couple celebrating their anniversary in an abandoned house.
Andrea: My title is, “Summer Camp,” and it is a comedic look at growing up, blow jobs, and yes, summer camp.
Eugenia: “Queen of Wands.” An elderly woman meandering through the unfamiliar neighborhoods of her memory encounters a young girl who is offering roadside tarot card readings.
William: A charmingly hyperbolic comedy exploding with a vigorous exploration of theatrically florid language and traditional theatrical muscularity.
Matt: My piece comes out of watching many a frustrated public school teacher… Funny? Sometimes. A little twisted? Maybe. And that’s all I will say about that. Ha!
Ellen, writing as director: Having heard and read each piece a couple of times now, what excites me most is how each one perfectly reflects its writer. The eight of us share certain passions and values, but we also live in different worlds and work with, in a sense, different media. I believe “Introducing . . . Playwrights West” will give audiences a really particular feel for each of us.
th: What excites PW about the FG festival?
Eugenia: A massive amount of new work gets exposure. Artists that never would have considered self-producing make it happen here for the first time. Awkward as it may be, and even though we don’t always know what it is we’re agreeing to, there’s nothing quite as enlivening as the first time.
William: The Fertile Ground Festival is exciting because it focuses the attention of the theater community on the most important aspect of theatrical life today: NEW WORK! The continuing validity of the theater as a contemporary art-form with a vital contribution to make to modern culture and politics stands completely in the theater communities ability to embrace, celebrate, and promote new work.
Patrick: There are many reasons Fertile Ground is exciting. One, it refutes the old idea that local work is necessarily provincial, and therefore of limited value. On the contrary, good theater HAS to speak locally if it’s to have any value at all. Two, with two festivals of new work happening annually in Portland, Portland is in a good position to become a theatrical focal point – nationally, regionally, and locally. Three, theater is like a living language; and a language only continues to live if it continues to grow and change. That means that original work is the life’s blood of the theater, literally. Watching it have a chance to see the sun means we get to see the reimagining of the living theater in each moment.
th: Care to give any hints, clues as to the play/playwright whose play will be first on the production list?
Patrick: All I will say is this: It’s a writer that you won’t expect. Tee hee hee…
“Introducing…Playwrights West” will perform January 31st, 2010 at 8 PM, at CoHo Productions: 2257 NW Raleigh Street, Portland, OR. Admission is $5, with the usual discount for festival pass holders.
Check them out on Facebook and purchase your tickets here.