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Watching New Plays Being Born at Cleveland Public Theatre

Getting ready for a smackdown in the new play, 'Saturated Fat' [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

When the curtain rises on a new play, audiences see a story brought to life by actors, lighting and sometimes music.  What they don’t generally see are the hours that the playwright spent crafting the script so that it feels real.  This past weekend, audiences in Cleveland got a peek behind the curtain to see a series of plays-in-progress.  It’s part of a national movement designed to bring new voices to the stage.

Meredith King smiles as she watches two actors argue about weight issues. The local playwright and director recently staged this scene from her brand new play, Saturated Fat, in a rehearsal hall at Cleveland Public Theatre.  King says the story examines cultural stereotypes about being overweight.  As someone who has lived with descriptions ranging from “Plus-size” to “Rubenesque”, this is a very personal story for her, and she says the original inspiration came from Twitter.

"There was a hashtag called Fatside Stories," she recalls, "and seeing these things that people had actually experienced and read about --- that frankly were also very close to me and my heart --- and I was like, 'I need to do something with this'.”

Saturated Fat isn’t quite done yet, but King and her actors tried this scene out on audiences over the weekend at Cleveland Public Theater’s Entry Point festival and conference.  Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan says twelve works-in-progress were staged, each one performed three nights in a row.

Entry Point is at that point of inspiration," he says.  "It's at that really early place for the playwright, whether it’s 'I’ve developed one scene really far and it’s already up on its feet', or 'I have a rough draft script'.”

Audiences provide valuable feedback in this development process --- not only through laughter, gasps and applause, but from post-production Q&A sessions aimed at giving the writers some perspectives that you just don’t get in that room by yourself, behind a keyboard.

"For me, the help is in having the audience in the room," says Cleveland Heights playright Eric Coble.  "It's in hearing how do the tempos play out?  Where does it seem to be dragging?"  

Cobles plays have been staged in New York, and across the country.  His latest is an absurd comedy called The Family Claxon, involving a birthday party, cyber-terrorism, and an animal flu outbreak that makes pets spontaneously combust.  The piece will get what’s known as a “staged reading”, where actors sit on stools and read the entire script.

"One of the things that I’ve learned," he says,  "is that you can never judge the effectiveness of a play, based on one audience.  But over three nights, if the audience keeps responding in a certain way, or not responding in a certain way, you can begin to guess, 'All right, it’s probably not the audience, it’s probably my play.'  That’s a big gift."  

The Entry Point festival is part of a larger movement across the country to bring a bigger mix of voices into theater.  For instance, the Washington DC-based National New Play Network represents over 100 theaters who are devoted to nurturing new work.  Two years ago, the Network launched a database featuring thousands of plays and playwrights.  Writers can post their work for consideration, and theaters get a larger pool of plays to choose from. Gwydion Suilebhan is Project Director for this New Play Exchange.  

"For decades and decades in the American theater," he says,  "we’ve had only one mechanism that connects playwrights and theaters, and that’s the submission process.  The submission process is just thoroughly broken --- it’s heavily one-way, it turns playwrights into exiles living outside the castle, always trying to bring the right papers to get admitted in.  It’s just heavily dysfunctional."  

Cleveland Public Theater’s Raymond Bobgan sees it as an opportunity to give a voice to plays born outside of the East Coast.

"So much of the theater in the past has been like this pipeline out of New York," he says,  "so all the plays had a sort of New York perspective.  Now, the plays being shared are from all over the country, because of this. "

Meredith King says she also appreciates the encouragement the playwrights are getting.

"Some of us came into this with scripts, others came into this with just nuggets of ideas.  And they’ve been able to help us all in whichever ways that we need.  And that’s really rare.  I’ve not seen a lot of programs like that."


David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.