That it ever happened is amazing.
That it’s continued for 28 years is flabbergasting.
After all, the Dayton Playhouse is an all-volunteer community theater. Three decades ago, who would have expected that when John Riley and Dodie Lockwood suggested that the playhouse should sponsor a new play festival that enough of their colleagues would agree?
More miraculously, their suggestion wasn’t forgotten. And so, FutureFest, as it’s been euphonically dubbed, has since 1991 annually given six world premieres, which means that 168 comedies and dramas have now been mounted.
Every July, each of the half-dozen selected scripts (out of hundreds submitted) is either given a staged reading or a full production. That three receive sets, costumes, lighting, actors off-book and detailed characterizations is astonishing considering that it’s all done for ONE singular performance.
FutureFest’s crown jewel has been Beau Willimon’s FARRAGUT NORTH, which five judges (including yours truly) chose as the winner in 2005. The heavily veiled story of Howard Dean’s run for the 2004 presidency received an off-Broadway production in 2008. That in turn spurred a 2011 film retitled THE IDES OF MARCH, which starred George Clooney, who co-wrote the screenplay with Willimon; Oscar nominations went to both. After that, Willimon went on to write and produce HOUSE OF CARDS.
But it all started in Dayton.
Last month, playwright Carl L. Williams made his fourth FutureFest appearance in 15 years with WHAT ARE WORDS WORTH TO A LONG FELLOW? The plot: Norris (the fabulously funky Jared Mola) is a poet who, needless to say, isn’t making much money. His older sister Phyllis (the most convincing Wendi Michael) raised him after their parents had died, so she’s utterly practical and wants him to get a job, now that the money left to him by an indulgent aunt is evaporating.
A simple, time-honored premise seemed fresh because Williams was fair to both sides. Just after Norris’ argument got the capacity crowd to start head-nodding in agreement, Phyllis would come out with a rebuttal that made those same attendees switch allegiances — only to have them walk back their newfound opinions. The theatergoers also enjoyed the romantic entanglements that each sibling enjoyed and endured.
Did you know that in Maryland’s pre-Civil War days of slavery that if a white woman married a black slave, she would lose all her rights and become a slave as well? William C. Kovacsik did and came up with FETTERED, a potent drama in which an Irish immigrant seamstress (a letter-perfect Karley Holderman) comes to love slave Charles (the magnificent Thomas L. Troutman) — and for good reason: Charles has taught her to read.
Better still: Kovacsik put Charles in a management position because Major Boardman (the always reliable Ray Geiger) knows talent when he sees it, rewards it accordingly and isn’t negatively influenced by a different color of skin.
Barbara Snow started her program bio by stating that she is “living proof that you are never too old to be an emerging playwright.” She is an early Baby Boomer who did write a couple of plays some decades ago, but LATE IN THE GAME is her first in 22 years.
It concerns Margaret (the indefatigable Fran Pesch) who’s fired from her position as English professor at a college because the new president is a businessman who sees no value in arts-related courses.
Margaret takes an adult ed class where the young new-wave teacher encourages all to write pornography.
(Excuse me: “erotica” is the euphemism of choice.)
If you’re anticipating that the play devolved into a tee-hee-fest of making seniors seem silly by spouting off the names of sex toys and S/M activities, you’re wrong. Snow took the highest of high roads and concentrated on the possibility that Margaret might just find love with the much younger John (a charming Mark Sharp).
Randy Neale offered LAST RITES — DETROIT, 1967, which detailed that year’s horrible July in the Motor City. Nobody was motoring anywhere, what with rioters and the police doing high-octane battle.
Neale personalized the dire situation by having white convenience store owner Ron (a persuasive Michael Schumacher) take in two black refugees: Esther (the stalwart Joyce Barnes), a cleaning woman who sees progress in race relations and Sydney (a menacing Naman Clark) who sees injustice at every turn.
John Minigan’s QUEEN OF SAD MISCHANCE showed what happens to an esteemed academic when Alzheimer’s invades her brain. And yet Beverly Norden still believes that she’s always right and will write yet another acclaimed tome.
Amy Taint was frighteningly ferocious whether dealing with her son (the no-nonsense Jamison Meyer) or her assistant (Carrin Ragland, a just-graduated high-schooler who performed with such authority that she seemed far more mature and accomplished).
OF MEN AND CARS by Jim Geoghan (author of the late ‘80s off-Broadway hit ONLY KIDDING) reminded us of a salient fact of life: automobiles are magical places for conversations between two people — especially a father (Dayton superstar Saul Caplan) and son (the sensitive Spencer Berta). In such a space, no one can hear you and that cocoon makes one feel safe enough to divulge innermost feelings.
This was the play we chose as the best of the bunch; the theatergoers’ response told us that they heartily agreed with us.
Notice, too, that it was done as a staged reading and not a full production. In fact, plays that had still been on-book have won more often than those that have had full productions – including FARRAGUT NORTH.
To every playwright: you MUST get in on FutureFest. In addition to seeing your script on its feet, you’ll be treated as if you are an esteemed monarch by the spectators. Your name (as well as those of the other finalists) will be emblazoned on T-shirts. Free airfare and lodging are part of the perks, too, along with most meals.
What may — MAY — be more valuable is feedback from five adjudicators (including me, most years) which you can take or leave. After they speak, the floor is opened to the audience members who will impress you with their extensive theatrical knowledge.
And why shouldn’t they know their way around a new play? They’ve now been seeing them for 28 solid years.