AMERICAN THEATRE | A New-Play Fest Is Born in Greenville, S.C.

Donwtown Greenville, S.C., that includes Guido van Helten’s mural on Canvas Tower.

In the event you take one of the best components of all of the play festivals I’ve labored on, you may get a way of the latest. The South Carolina New Play Pageant (SNPF) is a stunning mix of what got here earlier than, and a welcome begin to a brand new new-play pageant after a time when all we’ve heard about have been pageant postponements and closings (see: The Lark, Sundance, the Humana Pageant).

Shelley Butler and West Hyler began SNPF in Greenville, S.C., and it had its inaugural run Aug. 12-14.  Shelley, the creative director, is a collaborator I’ve labored with regularly, so I wasn’t shocked to get a name from West, the pageant’s government creative director, to dramaturg for the pageant. Nevertheless, I used to be shocked to be requested to dramaturg all 4 readings. Was that even doable? 

West and I talked via the pageant and the scheduling; the breadth of programming appeared to make it viable, and I used to be sympathetic to the economics of beginning up a pageant from scratch and needing to stretch the sources. Frankly, many producers would skip hiring any dramaturgs in any respect. There have been two straight performs, one musical, and one play for younger audiences. One of many performs, Dodi & Diana by Kareem Fahmy, I’d already been engaged on. The musical, From the Combined-Up Information of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, could be primarily pre- and post-festival work, as the majority of rehearsal time could be devoted to actors studying music. Like most TYA items, Dragonsoul Offline by Samantha Miller had the advantage of being shorter. And Kate Hamill, playwright for The Scarlet Letter, could be away on her honeymoon, so apart from attending the primary read-through, I might focus my time on the rehearsals that have been making extra script adjustments. Taking a deep breath, I agreed to provide it a whirl.

Dramaturg Kimberly Colburn, left, and pageant co-founder Shelley Butler, proper, with the group behind “Dodi & Diana”: actors Rosaline Elbay and Peter Mark Kendall, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and playwright Kareem Fahmy.

Having lived in Louisville, I discovered August in Greenville to be not practically the sweaty swamp climate I had feared after I arrived. I’d had nice advance conferences with the playwrights—haven’t all of us gotten adept at forming relationships on Zoom?—and this initially felt like a super-sized model of the job I’d completed numerous instances earlier than, i.e., dramaturg for a studying of a brand new play as a part of a pageant. 

Nonetheless, from the beginning, this felt a little bit completely different. It wasn’t my first in-person new-play pageant post-pandemic (I’d produced the Her Phrases pageant at Soulpepper in Toronto in October 2021, and labored as a dramaturg on the Denver New Play Summit in February 2022), however the inaugural yr of something has a particular sense of pleasure: Is that this for actual? How does this work? How is it the identical or completely different from the others? 

West and Shelley had spent months assembly with the humanities leaders and supporters of Greenville to create a city-wide occasion. A lot of the new-play festivals I’d labored on had been housed in (and produced by) a single year-round theatrical establishment, however SNPF was completely different. As West put it, “When Shelley and I found Greenville, and realized town had six performing arts venues all positioned downtown on Fundamental Avenue inside a mile of one another, we knew it was the right place to provide a city-wide new play pageant.” So the pageant was going down at 5 completely different venues throughout city, who’d all agreed to donate house and share sources. I can’t think about the herculean effort it took to discover a week within the calendar the place all 4 firms (the Peace Middle, with two areas, together with the Warehouse, South Carolina Youngsters’s Theatre, and Centre Stage) had house to donate to a start-up effort. However they did it, and other people at each theatre went out of their method to inform me how thrilled they have been that this pageant was occurring. Dramaturg scorching tip: Putting up foyer conversations can typically show helpful!

It helped that the pageant got down to be a mix of native and nationwide expertise. Not like the Humana Pageant, which used to rely primarily on out-of-town actors, or the Pacific Playwrights Pageant, which depends on native Southern California actors, SNPF was precisely half and half; out of a full pageant solid of 24, 12 actors have been native and 12 from out of city. This balanced proportion felt seamless as I walked backwards and forwards throughout Greenville to the assorted rehearsals and noticed unified ensembles in all of the completely different theatres.

A talkback after a studying of “Dragonsoul Offline” with Kimberly Colburn, West Hyler, Travis Ballenger, playwright Samantha Miller, Jessica Penzias, and Laura Nicholas.

One other tenet of the pageant is accessibility, and SNPF provided free reserved tickets to all of the readings. There have been paid occasions: two lessons and a closing night time Broadway cabaret with Kelli Barrett and Jarrod Spector, and assured seats for donors. However of the 1,300 tickets, over 75 p.c have been free and accessible to the general public. All occasions have been remarkably effectively attended; as a producer, I can let you know that performances with free admission typically have a 35-50 p.c no-show charge. I reminded West of this reality regularly via the week as he frightened about occasions promoting out. It turned out he was proper to be involved: For SNPF readings, the attrition charge total was a mere 12 p.c, and the ready lists simply lined that distinction to create enthusiastic full homes. I did a little bit digging to determine why. 

Greenville, which has a inhabitants of round 70,000, is clearly very happy with its arts group—one SNPF board member proudly declared to me that Greenville has extra stay performing arts levels than film theatres. The small downtown space boasts artwork galleries, cute outlets, a nightclub, a few comedy bars, and a scavenger hunt to search out the hidden mice sculptures. Public artwork traces the road, and greater than half of the shop home windows boast theatre posters promoting upcoming productions (and never simply SNPF). 

I realized that Greenville additionally has a penchant for festivals. Artisphere is a Greenville pageant in Could that options a whole bunch of artists. There’s the Euphoria meals and wine pageant, which goals to provide guests a “style of all of the issues that make the Upstate so enchanting,” and which takes an analogous strategy to SNPF by bringing in culinary expertise from New York and L.A. to pair with native cooks and eating places. Fall for Greenville pairs meals with music. Indie Craft Parade, the Greenville Nation Music Fest, and the Craft Beer Pageant are just some extra examples of the way the city clearly revels in its spectacular inhabitants progress over the previous few years. With all its levels, a theatre pageant virtually appears inevitable.

There’s a little bit little bit of magic in being on the proper time and the best place, and the Upstate (the area within the westernmost a part of South Carolina) was ripe for a performing arts-oriented pageant as a solution to the Spoleto Pageant in Charleston. Travis Ballenger, a producer with Lia Vollack Productions and native to the realm, was excited sufficient to make the journey out when he heard about it, and was moved by the pageant and its potential for the long run. He instructed me, “The South Carolina New Play Pageant dropped at the South among the most enjoyable theatre artists we’ve got. Greenville, S.C., has at all times valued the humanities immensely, and to match that zeal with the nationwide attain of SNPF is the work arts organizations ought to do.” 

The ultimate cabaret efficiency on the South Carolina New Play Pageant.

Within the lovely swag luggage that SNPF put collectively for the artists was a T-shirt from native designer Billiam Denims which says, “Go away Brooklyn, transfer to Greenville.” I consider anybody who wasn’t native was tempted by the thought. 

The partnerships with different organizations made a distinction to me too. Earlier than the final studying, I attended a gathering with Dr. Gail Wilson Awan, SNPF board member and CEO of the City League, to debate their potential funding of the pageant’s first fee, and was amazed at her funding in not solely funding however discussing why and the way that partnership might serve each the group and the artist. It was clear not solely that Greenville helps the humanities and artists, however that in addition they assist locals. If SNPF was to fee an artist to inform their tales, Wilson Awan argued, it needed to be completed in a means that may make investments in the neighborhood, not simply examine the group. 

Despite the fact that the pageant was produced on the identical shoestring of restricted sources and constraints we’re all working underneath, I by no means felt any trace of shortage. In the long run, what made it particular for me was the very means during which it embraced variety in all its kinds. Not solely was it each native and nationwide artists, but it surely additionally employed 50 p.c actors of coloration; the SNPF board is 30 p.c individuals of coloration. Some artists had spectacular, prolonged résumés; some have been fairly inexperienced. I roamed the lobbies earlier than and after the reveals, putting up conversations and eavesdropping, and located audiences to be a mixture of arts fans, some who’d by no means attended a play studying earlier than and others who have been veterans of the shape. Now that we’ve confirmed the idea, I hope to see my business pals from the new-play pageant circuit there subsequent yr. The combo of musicals, straight performs, TYAs, and cabarets felt not like any related pageant I’d attended or labored on beforehand. I’m already wanting ahead to subsequent yr’s SNPF, slated for August 10-13, 2023.

The best way the South Carolina New Play Pageant took over town of Greenville with shows at six completely different theatres felt like a miniature model of Edinburgh Fringe, and jogged my memory of an adage I can’t cease repeating to myself and different theatre professionals on the market: A rising tide lifts all boats.

Kimberly Colburn (she/her) is is the producer of latest work at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, was beforehand literary director of South Coast Rep, the place she was co-director of PPF and led the theatre’s CrossRoads initiative. Previous to that she literary supervisor at Actors Theatre of Louisville. She has dramaturged and produced dozens of productions, workshops and readings.

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