If you recall I have been producing “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers” at The Blank Theatre this spring. Well I’m also producing another show there, the 21st Annual Young Playwrights Festival. This festival is one of my favorite parts of the year since I started working with The Blank. My first year I was a box office volunteer, the next two years I had the privilege of acting in the festival, and this year I have the honor of producing it. My co-producer of the festival was Jason Weiss, whom I’ve been working with at The Blank in the Living Room Series and on mainstage shows.
The festival is in its 21st year of producing theatre written by playwrights 19 and younger. There will have been 248 plays produced at the end of this year’s festival. It runs for four weeks and each weekend is a set of three plays with playwrights coming in from all over the country to see their work performed on a Hollywood stage with professional actors and a professional director. They are also given a writing mentor, a professional writer that helps them shape their plays, if needed, and does what any good mentor does, gives them advice on writing, school and life in general. Mentors have included David Rambo (Revolution, CSI), Dave Holstein (Weeds), and Irene Mecchi (The Lion King (the musical and the movie), Brave). Directors have included Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible the tv show), April Webster (casting director of Star Trek, Lost, Fringe), and Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Beaches). Actors are too numerous to list but include Noah Wyle, Octavia Spencer, Josh Radnor, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Debra Messing, Chris Pine, Ed Asner and Molly Shannon to name a few.
There is a selection committee of 21 industry professionals (actors, writers, directors, etc) that read every single play that is submitted. They narrow down the initial submissions to between 40 and 50 semifinalists and discuss each one to make sure everyone who has something to say about the play gets to give their opinion. And in the words of Daniel Henning, “The charge I give the committee is to vote for the ones that your heart tells you to.” One thing I love about YPF is that there is no single winner, there are twelve. It’s not about best comedy or drama, or who’s the best in different age categories, it’s about finding twelve amazing plays written by playwrights 19 and younger from all across the country.
We also have a team of apprentices who serve as the stage management team. They are (typically) students with an interest in theatre, usually stage management, but our apprentices have been actors, dancers and even military veterans. We look for a team of apprentices who are excited to be a part of the festival and have an interest in learning. They are unpaid but can receive school credit if their school approves. What they learn in the six weeks they’re with us is equal to a full year of stage management courses. They get to work on multiple shows and are presented with all sorts of problems that small theatre can present. We have a fabulous production stage manager, Cathrin Winsor-Farrar, who oversees all the apprentices and the tech side of the festival. This is her second year with us and I was so excited to learn she was coming back.
Coordinating everything for twelve plays on a shoestring budget is quite the challenge. With each show getting $50 (for everything-props, sets, costumes), we sometimes have to get very creative. One year one of the plays was set in the future and needed a helmet that was supposed to be part of a torture device. So one of the apprentices got very creative and used items he found in the office and in his own home and came up with a great prop. And with so many people working together on a short time frame (each play has two weeks of rehearsals) we all work together to find solutions. Each play has its own challenges which is what I love. It keeps you on your toes!
YPF is an event that brings out the best of Hollywood. We come together to support the next generation of playwrights and writers. Many of our playwrights are still writing, whether it’s plays, films, tv or even novels. Stephen Karam was a three-time winner and last year received numerous awards for his play “Sons of the Prophet”, including being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Austin Winsberg was the youngest show runner at ABC with his TV show “Jake In Progress”. He’ll be opening his first musical on Broadway this summer, “First Date”. One of my newest friends, Laura Bousman, is now a film producer. Regardless of what they’re doing now they have all said that YPF changed their life and made them who they are today. It is a true honor to be a part of YPF, and producing it this year has been extra special.
I know it’s already half over, but there are still two weeks left of the festival for you to enjoy. That’s six more plays by playwrights 19 and under. This year we welcomed back our youngest winner ever, Spencer Emerson Opal-Levine, who at the age of 9 (yes, 9!) won last year with his play “Coffee Talk” (which I got to act in as the coffee bean who wanted to be a latte!), and we also welcomed back two winners for a third and final time. One of them, Nicole Acton, will have another play she submitted work shopped in our Living Room Series in December 2013. Every year we are absolutely amazed by the plays that are submitted, wondering how these words and ideas can come from such young minds, and yet every year we find 12 plays that are absolutely amazing and move us to tears, laughter and questioning the world. It might sound cheesy, but this festival gives me hope that the arts are still important in America and that they will continue for generations to come.
So check out The Blank Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival if you’re in Los Angeles this month, or just support The Blank so we can continue producing this amazing festival for years to come! You have to see it to believe it!