April 15, 2014

Scenes and Monologues from
Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Finalists

Read any good plays lately? 

I have a confession to make. I can't read a play and come away with anything approaching the emotional satisfaction I get from the experience in the theater. Some people can. I can't.

It takes the skills of actors, directors and designers to bring the stories to life for me – to convert the playwright's words into the play's worlds, and to connect all the threads the playwright spins into the fabric of human experience.

However, I find I can read a single scene and "get it." I can absorb the interconnections of a speech pretty well on my own. I can read a single scene and thrill to the craft involved and the emotional content placed there by the author. Concentrating on a single scene or a single speech, I can get a glimpse of what the full play must be like.

There are so many new plays being developed around the country. I'd love to be able to tour the nation to catch a premiere here, a second production there and perhaps a revival somewhere else. But time and money are both scarce resources, so some sort of sampling technique comes in handy.

Of course, following the writings of many of my colleagues in the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) can provide a way to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of current programming in regional theaters around the country. But for a chance to actually sample the output of some of the current crop of fine playwrights, there is a new book that can be of help. 

The book is by Bruce Burgun, one of my colleagues in the Association. (I suppose this is the place for a disclosure since the Association receives royalties from sales of his book and I served on the association's Executive Committee and as its Treasurer.) In over 300 fairly large type pages, Burgun presents some of the strongest scenes and monologues from many of the finalists for the annual new play award that the Association administers with funding from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. 

The Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award is the largest and most prestigious award of its kind outside New York City, and it concentrates on plays that have received their premieres during the year but have not had a production in any of the five borrows of New York. Each year the New Play Committee of ATCA reads dozens of plays that members of the Association have discovered in their local theaters and recommended for consideration. Somehow, the committee members find a way to narrow the field to six finalists, and eventually, to a grand prize recipient and two citation recipients. The top recipient gets an award of $25,000 while each of the two citation recipients receive $7,500. 

In this volume, Burgun reprints nearly 70 scenes and monologues from 27 plays that were finalists for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award between 2008 and 2012. They are by such sterling playwrights as Karen Zacharías, Lee Blessing, Donald Margulies, Tracy Letts, Steven John Dietz and Sarah Ruhl.

One scene from Legacy of Light by Karen Zacharías lets us eavesdrop on an infertile couple's interview with a prospective surrogate to carry their effort at in-vitro fertilization to delivery. Dietz's intriguing Becky's New Car is represented by two monologues as well as the scene in which the titular Becky meets the multimillionaire who wants to buy nine cars from her dealership as gifts for his employees.

Sarah Ruhl's wonderful Dead Man's Cell Phone is here with three multi-female character scenes and a monologue, while Bill Cain's 9 Circles about a returning soldier who finds himself accused of atrocities during his service in Iraq is represented by three two-character scenes. In one the accused vet meets with the public defender who is to walk him through his arraignment. Then there's the meeting with his defense attorney preparing for trial, and another with a pastor who believes he needs not a lawyer but Jesus. 

The riches continue with scenes from Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, Lee Blessing's Great Falls and the intriguingly titled Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Mamatmat. 

Burgun, a critic who is also an Associate Professor of Acting and Directing at Indiana University in Bloomington, selected these snippets as material for scene study instructors to use in teaching actors how to analyze individual scenes in preparing a performance. He says that "The individual scenes were chosen for their balance of conflict, arch of transition, and the ferocity of the circumstances." 

Those criteria also happen to produce a set of selections that the cold reader, not having either the pleasure of seeing full productions of the plays or the luxury or ability to read a full script, can get a feeling for the richness and diversity of the best of the plays that are being written for theater around the country these days.

In a superb introduction to the volume, Bill Hirschman, editor of Florida Theater On Stage and chair of ATCA's New Play Committee, makes the point that today's theater is undergoing "sea changes in playwriting" which he identifies as "an increasing reliance on shorthand in storytelling for savvier and younger audiences, stylistic and elliptical approaches, cinematically visual tableaux, (and) the incorporation of digital technology to re-create seemingly impossible visions." 

Burgun gives us a glimpse of how today's writers are rising to that challenge.   
Scenes and Monologues from

Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Finalists 2008 – 2012
Edited by Bruce Burgun
Paperback 350 pages 
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
ISBN 978-1-4768-6878-3
List Price $19.99