July 20--Fans of the political Netflix series "House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey, may have recognized the name of the show's producer/writer, Beau Willimon.
Willimon, who made news Thursday when "House of Cards" snagged nine Emmy nominations, is one of 125 playwrights who've come to Dayton over the years for FutureFest, a weekend of new plays.
The annual summer weekend is produced by the Dayton Playhouse.
This year's FutureFest weekend will take place from Friday, July 26, through Sunday, July 28. Both weekend passes and individual tickets are now on sale.
The idea is to introduce and stage a group of new scripts each summer and to provide the kind of helpful feedback to the playwrights that will aid them in taking their dramas to the next level. For the past 23 years, the mammoth undertaking -- six shows in a weekend -- has been accomplished by a dedicated group of more than 100 Playhouse volunteers who evaluate, select and stage the theatrical premieres.
"Each festival is unique, thrilling, unpredictable, grueling, hilarious and thought-provoking," says adjudicator Helen Sneed, a New Yorker who will be returning to the festival as a judge for the 20th time. "Some plays and productions are of such high quality they could be lifted up and placed in New York."
Sneed, who has been affiliated with Dramatists Play Service, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and Walt Disney Theatricals, says she's learned more about the American theater in Dayton, Ohio than in New York.
"Regional theatre is the bedrock of our national theatre," she insists. " The Playhouse and FutureFest are living, growing, thrilling proof. "
Picking the plays
This year 190 scripts were submitted and reviewed by committee members who donate thousands of hours to the project. Themes of the plays chosen this year range from war and gay marriage to abstract art and religion. One of the plays is based on an historical incident that took place in 1403; another involved the conflict between a veiled black Muslim student and her Egyptian, non-veiled, roommate.
One of the highlights of the weekend is the panel discussion by a group of national critics that follows each presentation; that panel also selects a winning play at the end of the weekend.
In Willimon's case, his "Farragut North" not only captured the top FutureFest prize in 2006 but went on to become "The Ides of March," a film starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But long before those stars got a crack at the juicy roles, they were portrayed by local actors. That's one of FutureFest's most appealing aspects, says Saul Caplan of Dayton who's been involved with the creative project for the past 15 years -- directing 11 shows and on stage for six.
Caplan says FutureFest is one of the most exciting and challenging things he does every year. It's a family affair for the Caplans -- Saul's wife has served on the reading committee since 2001, both of his daughters have staged-managed the weekend and his sister arrives from New York each year to see the productions.
"There are no road maps to follow, no previous productions that can be researched," explains Caplan. "We are truly creating from scratch. Sometimes we please the playwrights with how we've presented their work; sometimes not."
Either way, says Caplan, whatever's put on the stage -- good or bad -- becomes part of that show forever.
"When the playwrights sit back down to make revisions, what they saw at FutureFest will impact the way they see the characters and what they do with them," Caplan says proudly. " Our performances become part of the fabric of the play."
The view of the playwright
The play Caplan is directing this year is entitled "On the Road to Kingdom Come" by Michael Feeley of California.
Feeley, who is originally from Washington Twp. and Centerville, is a four-time returnee to FutureFest and in 2009 won for his play "Night and Fog," a World War II drama. He says every time he comes to FutureFest he learns something new about his own work and the work of his fellow playwrights. He insists the weekend is unlike any other theatrical experience.
"FutureFest, first of all, gives a playwright the opportunity to see his/her work on its feet for the first time," explains the author of 20 plays. "It is also important to see my work in the context of the work of others ... five other playwrights whose work has been chosen as mine has been chosen."
He says the adjudication process represents five more sets of eyes on work which -- up until that point -- has only been seen through his own eyes, or the eyes of his friends and agent.
"The opinions of respected voices in the theatre community can be invaluable," Feeley says.
He says audience reaction is also critical. "Nothing is more important to a playwright than to see and hear the reaction of an audience to a work ... and to hear their opinions at the talk-back afterward. My favorite part of any of my productions has been intermission -- standing in the lobby and listening to people who don't know who I am giving their actual opinions."
Among those who enjoy sitting in the audience year after year are Juanita and Bob Wehrle-Einhorn of Dayton View, who say they appreciate the opportunity to see six plays which have never been produced before and to see actors who devote a huge amount of time and preparation to a play that they'll only perform once.
The couple says they enjoy hearing the playwrights explain why and how they wrote their plays and hearing theater professionals give feedback. They also enjoy visiting with friends from the Miami Valley and throughout the country who return each year.
"And the audience members, many of whom are very knowledgeable about theater, have an opportunity to ask questions and comment on the play," says Juanita. " In addition, audience members have frequent opportunities during the weekend to mingle with the authors, the adjudicators, and other members of Dayton's theater community."
Most of the critics who've been invited to participate in FutureFest accept the invitation year after year. Helen Sneed lists three reasons why she comes back: the people, the plays and the inspiration.
"After two decades I have dozens of friends in Dayton and the minute I walk into the theatre I feel at home," she says, admitting that her first FutureFest 20 years ago was a great surprise.
"I simply had no idea what to expect," she says. " I was accustomed to dealing with the top professional theaters in the U.S. and Canada. How could a community theatre pull off a new play festival when most of the professional theatres didn't? The quality of the work and generosity of spirit of the Dayton community blew me away."
Sneed says now when she think of FutureFest two disparate images come to mind: the lush, green grounds of Wegerzyn Gardens, where patrons visit and picnic between shows, and the cool darkness of the theater when the lights go down.
Sneed says the best word to describe the weekend is "abundance."
"Of opportunity, plays, talent, hospitality -- a coterie of people who love and support new plays, and those who create the indelible experience of live theatre. FutureFest is art, individuality and community at their very best."
To see a FutureFest rehearsal, see MyDaytonDailyNews.com
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