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Northern Writes: new and improved

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New play festival marks seventh year

BANGOR Creating new works for the stage is an incredibly involved process. Playwrights struggle to find ways to see and hear their words so that they might find ways to tweak and improve their product. Hearing your words aloud and hearing an audience's reaction to those words is one of the most vital aspects of building the best possible piece.

Since 2007, Penobscot Theatre Company has been doing their part to help in the achievement of those goals. The seventh annual Northern Writes Festival of New Works is taking place at the Bangor Opera House from May 3 through May 5. Since its inception, over a thousand scripts have been submitted to the festival and vetted by a variety of readers. All told, Northern Writes has produced staged readings of over 100 scripts by writers from all over the country and beyond.

This year, however, things are a little bit different.

First of all, the festival has moved from late June/early July to early May. In addition, the number of scripts selected has been reduced; there are eight five full-length and three shorts. They will be read over the course of a single weekend rather than spreading the event over the entirety of a week. Also, there are cash prizes for the works deemed best full-length and best short.

Bruce Pratt is the coordinator and director of Northern Writes.

'We decided to make it [more of] a contest to up the stature,' said Pratt. 'The reader's fees that we charged cover the prizes; we've got lodging available for all of the out of town playwrights. And they're all coming; we've got two from California, two from Massachusetts and one from Pennsylvania. We've got one from Holden and two from the Portland area as well. 

'We got a lot of really good stuff,' he continued. 'We got over 100 submissions for the contest. [But] we got shows with a lot of technical requirements, shows with a lot of physical stuff. We really need to find scripts that work for our format.

'We got scripts from Australia, Canada, the U.K we got submissions from 13 different states. Comedies and dramas, monologues; a lot of writers who had won major awards made submissions. Clearly, we're starting to attract the kinds of scripts that we want to attract.'

Pratt made particular mention of 'One Blue Tarp,' the Clauder-winning play by Orono writer Travis Baker that was a Northern Writes selection in 2010 and will be a part of the PTC season in 2014, holding it up as an example of how the festival should work.

'We want the festival to become a new play incubator, something that we don't yet have in this area,' Pratt said. 'We're looking to start a weekly new play reading series; we want to make it part of the overall process and get even more local contributions in the coming years. We're connecting with writers from other parts of the state; we're really excited to get more Maine content.

'Our goal is for Maine plays to get a chance to go on to a bigger stage. The hope is that when the tide goes back out, it brings some of our stuff with it.'

Pratt also mentioned working with the Maine Playwrights Festival in Portland.

'I've been working with Mike Levine of the MPF,' he said. 'We're looking to set up a way for them to come here and for us to go down there [at some point].'

Pratt spoke to the festival's quality, both in terms of the selected plays and the actors and directors who are coming together to help bring them to the stage.

'Northern Writes exposes people to just how many great theater people we have here in this area. We're excited for the Maine content. We're really excited about the level of excitement displayed by the director and actors who will be working on the projects.'

In terms of the changes to the format of the festival particularly the smaller size it all came down to audience feedback.

'People felt like the festival went too long [in the past],' said Pratt. 'They felt like they missed too much. The festival needed to grow vertically rather than horizontally. We decided that we really wanted to help focus people's attention. Not only can you see the whole thing in a single weekend, but it also makes the scheduling much easier in terms of actors and directors.

'Doing it at this time of year makes it easier for people to come as well. And we can do it all at the Opera House we're really trying to keep focus on the Opera House. It's all about getting people in there to see what we've got.'

Pratt's pride regarding the new direction of Northern Writes is palpable. A lot of hard work has been done by a lot of people in order to bring the project to fruition. It's an event that has gotten smaller, yet will make an even bigger impact because of that streamlining process. The term 'addition by subtraction' sometimes has a negative connotation, but in this case, it's very much a positive thing.

'I've been all over and seen a number of these sorts of festivals,' Pratt said. 'This one is better. I'm really proud of the plays that we're going to do. I think they'll all be accessible.'

(The Northern Writes Festival of New Work runs from May 3 through May 5 at the Bangor Opera House. Festival tickets are $10; they are good for any and all readings throughout the course of the weekend. For tickets or more information, visit the PTC website at penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.)

In their words

Northern Writes thoughts from a pair of Portland playwrights

Michael Kimball, author of Duck and Cover

My life changed on a cold October afternoon in 1962. I was 12 years old, playing intramural football after school, and I stood and watched my slow-footed opponent run right past me. I simply saw no point in chasing him, not when we were about to be incinerated by Russian nuclear missiles.

I didn't intend for the play to end up so biographical. But as I groped my way through memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, my cast filled in around me with familiar faces a loving yet regimented war-vet father who tries to fortify his family's beliefs about God, country and family in the face of persistent social changes undermining him; a housewife mother longing for relief from her cookie-cutter life; an eccentric uncle, sprung from the jazz clubs of Paris, who lives to shake up the status quo. 

Looking back through a 50-year lens with the luxury of historical hindsight allowed me to finally recognize the impossibility of my father's struggle. 1962 was America's watershed year, when all the scales began to fall. President Kennedy sent the National Guard to Mississippi to enforce school integration and American troops to Vietnam to put down a revolution. A year earlier, school prayer had been ruled unconstitutional. The birth control pill had been invented but still was banned in most states. Bob Dylan and The Beatles both recorded their first albums in 1962 but were vastly unknown. America perched on the precipice of earthshaking cultural changes, from the top to bottom of society: Civil rights, women's rights, students' rights, sexual liberation, war protests, assassinations, sex, drugs, rock n' roll and the disintegration of families all across the nation. Ours was the house where the culture wars would soon begin. Ours and a million others.

Michael Tooher, author of pudding

All my full length plays are pretty much written as experiments with form, style and subject.

For pudding, I wanted to try to write a romantic comedy. But I wanted the two principal characters to have an air of desperation and deep unmet needs. So it turned out that way. They are two horribly mismatched people.

Before I write I need to have a title, the first line and some sort of idea about the ending. With pudding, I had all of those things in my head but still didn't feel the impetus to start writing. Until my son started telling me some wild and involved story about a failed 'Parakeets By Mail' business venture. For whatever reason, the sheer absurdity of the idea was the trigger. That night I actually woke up with the entire play in my head and wrote the first scene right there. Inspiration is an unknowable muse indeed.

The play has been described as 'a postmodern romantic comedy about fame, loneliness, obsession and dessert.' I couldn't say it any better myself.

Northern Writes Schedule

Friday, May 3

6 PM Northern Writes Kickoff Reception (all are welcome)

7 PM  Neverland Station by Jack Rushton (Newbury, MA)

8 PM  Pudding by Michael Tooher (Portland, ME)

Saturday, May 4

2 PM  The Importance of Plumbers by H.G. Andaleaux (Holden, ME)

3 PM  Mom's Gift by Phil Olson (Newhall, CA)

5 PM  Cat and Mouse by Michael Wolfson (Valley Village, CA)

7 PM  A Position of Relative Importance by Hal Borden (Philadelphia, PA)

Sunday, May 5

1 PM  Stolen Girl by Elizabeth Searle (Arlington, MA)

2 PM  Duck and Cover by Mike Kimball (Portland, ME)

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Please note that following each reading, audiences are invited to stay and engage in a conversation with the playwright. This is an opportunity to offer feedback and ask questions of the author. These sessions are a vital part of the Northern Writes experience for playwrights and patrons alike; your participation can go a long way toward helping the artist refine and improve their work. It's a chance to have your voice heard in a unique way.

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