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Northern Writes shines on

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New play festival celebrates five years

When theatre is good, it can be among the most evocative of art forms. A well-crafted play can touch the viewer and make the audience respond in a very honest and visceral way. A great play makes you feel.

Regardless of whether we're talking about classic creators like Shakespeare or Chekhov, more contemporary masters like Williams or Beckett, or current authors like Mamet or Stoppard, one significant characteristic of a true theatrical masterpiece is common to each and every one of the greats.

Every play was a new play, once upon a time.

Such is the wonder of Penobscot Theatre Company's Northern Writes New Play Festival, now entering its fifth year. Over the course of that half-decade, PTC and Northern Writes have workshopped over 100 new plays, providing authors with an opportunity to see and hear their words from the stage.

The recently-departed Scott and Joye Levy made this festival happen. From modest beginnings, Northern Writes has grown into a legitimate festival, with buzz and prestige and whatnot throughout the theatrical community. It is one of the biggest - if not the biggest - summer theater festivals in all of New England.

Playwrights from all over the country and all over the world submitted their work to be a part of this festival. Every year, only 20-25 pieces make the cut. This year, the number is 21. All those plays, all the blood, sweat and tears - and at the end of the day, less than two dozen are left standing.

(Special mention at this point to playwright Joe Musso, who is the only playwright to have work appear in all five Northern Writes festivals. I've had the privilege of working on a number of Mr. Musso's pieces - including "Conk and Bone," this year's entry - and all I can say is that there's a reason his work keeps getting chosen. Writers like him are one of the reasons that this festival exists and exists successfully.)

Also worthy of note is PTC technical director Andrew Frodahl's short play "Liferaft;" Frodahl authored the adaptation of "The Velveteen Rabbit" that PTC offered last winter.

As an actor, Northern Writes offers a multitude of opportunities. First off, there are roles galore - there's plenty of good stuff for actors across the spectrum. I've played an eccentric lobsterman, a zookeeper, a crusty sportswriter - heck, I even played a super-intelligent chimpanzee once. And that's the beauty of the festival; the variety. These are works written in many different genres by many different authors who are coming from very different places. You never know whose story you're going to get to tell. You're helping these authors fine-tune their stories. You're a part of the process. There really is nothing like it.

Directing, on the other hand, is one of the more thankless jobs inherent to Northern Writes. Considering the staged-reading format, the casual observer might think that the director doesn't bring much to the table. The casual observer would be wrong. Sure, there might not be much in the way of blocking, but one could argue that that fact makes the director more important. The amount of rehearsal time is minimal - the actors have limited opportunity to explore the piece together. Any questions they have, the director need to be prepared to come up with an answer for them.

The schedule can be a bit grueling - especially for that core of actor/directors who take on multiple scripts over the course of things. Jasmine Ireland, who has taken the reins of this year's Northern Writes with the departure of the Levys, is busting her tail with a bunch of shows. Ditto the theater's managing director Marcie Bramucci, who is also all over the festival. The two of them are working a dozen shows between them.

Veteran PTC stage manager Meredith Perry is all over things as well, doing some directing as well as her usual first-rate stage management work. University of Maine theater professor Marcia Douglas is acting and directing as well. Meanwhile, PTC regulars such as Arthur Morison, Ben Layman and Christie Robinson are all acting and directing up a storm.

And that's one of the greatest things of all about this festival. Yes, it's all about new and exciting works of theater. Yes, it's an opportunity to grow and enhance creativity. But it's also a chance for the community to celebrate itself. Sure, there are a lot of stage regulars up there. But there are plenty of people drawn from the community at large as well, people who might not have the time or the inclination to commit six weeks to a show, but they can commit a couple of days. Performers of all shapes, sizes and skill levels unite to bring these shows to life.

Northern Writes is your community, brought together to tell stories from the stage.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 15:29

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