Since 2000, Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor, MI, has given voice to a hundred new plays, about half of them by Michigan dramatists, in its Fireside New Play Festival of staged readings. The latest lineup, March 9-12, features a roster of all-Michigan writers. PNT’s associate artistic director and literary director Carla Milarch shares some insight into the Fireside history and process.
Performed in a barebones setup with music stands and scripts in hand, the four titles of the winter 2014 Fireside Festival are:
Invasive Species by Joseph Zettelmaier (Sunday, March 9, 7 PM): “When lonely Michigan fisherman Earl Hobbs catches and decides to keep a Channa marulius in his fish tank, the invasive great snakehead becomes the target of a DNR investigation. Soon, overachiever agent Eden Selkirk arrives on the scene, with a dragnet and an attitude as toothy as the fish itself, threatening Earl’s status quo, his peace of mind, and his favorite fishing hole.”
Bird of Passage by Colby Halloran (Monday, March 10, 7 PM): “A new play about a real short story, about an actual fishing accident, Bird of Passage pivots on the unlikely friendship that develops between Lawrence Sargent Hall, author of ‘The Ledge’ and a lonely writer who shares his house off the coast of Maine. This haunting tale invokes a story John Updike called ‘timeless — a naturalistic anecdote terrible in its tidal simplicity and inexorability.’”
The Antichrist Cometh by David MacGregor (Tuesday, March 11, 7 PM): “John is an advertising exec who’s having a bad day. While examining his receding hairline, he notices what is either a very strange birthmark or the numbers 666 emblazoned on his forehead. When an old fraternity brother arrives with his evangelical fiancee in tow, the conversation turns to ‘revelations’ about John’s past, and all hell breaks loose – just in time for dinner.”
Irrational with music by R. MacKenzie Lewis, book and lyrics by David Wells (Wednesday, March 12, 7 PM): “Irrational is a true ancient Greek mathematician love-and-death musical. Pythagoras was a gangsta. With his cult of fervent followers, he built a sect on the premise that divinity is found in the harmony of ratios — the rational. When one of their own, Hippasus, discovers irrational numbers, he blows a hole in the Pythagoreans’ world and crosses the wrong philosopher/mathematician.”
Each presentation is followed by a moderated talkback.
“Hearing the play aloud” by actors is more important than the talkback, according to Michigan-born playwright Brooke Berman, whose Motown-set drama 1300 Lafayette East was read at Fireside in summer 2013 prior to its 2014 co-production premiere by West Bloomfield Township’s Jewish Ensemble Theatre and Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company.
Berman’s Fireside story is unusual. A family emergency prevented her attendance, but Milarch hooked up the writer, electronically. Berman says, “I listened to rehearsals and to the readings via speaker phone, and I did talkbacks via speaker-phone. It was a phenomenal experience.” (Read my earlier interview with Berman, who talks more about her new play.)
Tickets are pay what you can. Performance Network Theatre is at 120 E. Huron St. in Ann Arbor, MI. For more information, visit performancenetwork.org.
There are two more Fireside Festivals scheduled for 2014 — in August and December.
Here’s my chat with Fireside curator and founder Carla Milarch.
When you’re considering scripts for the Fireside New Play Festival, is there a Performance Network “ethos” or “taste” that you aim for? Your audience has always been somewhat “indie”-minded. They don’t mind a challenge, right?
Carla Milarch: We have a very loyal audience at the Fireside Festival. They are intellectually intrepid, up for a challenge, very literate, and very interested in new voices. So, that’s a pretty perfect audience to program to as far as a new play festival goes. I also like to stretch their horizons a little bit, from time to time. For example, in the December festival I included a new play by up-and-coming playwright Reina Hardy, that I’d read as a reader on the Kennedy Center M.F.A. Workshop committee. It was very non-linear, an almost “dream play” style, and our audiences have a tendency to feel challenged by material like that, so I thought it would be fun to stretch… Fireside is a good, safe, place to stretch artistically like that without incurring a big financial risk.
Do you look for something beyond the “well-made”? Is there a specific quality that you think your audience looks for?
Carla Milarch: One of our big artistic touchstones is eclecticism. In both our main stage season, and in Fireside, we aim to provide people with a variety of offerings, to keep things lively, stretch our artistic palette, and honor the wide range of what theatre can do, stylistically and topically, so I try to program accordingly. But if you asked me to describe the mainstay play of the Fireside festival, I would say that it is a well-crafted, well-voiced, intellectually stimulating play by an up-and-coming, “new to us,” or resident Michigan playwright. But most of all, I look for plays that are going to be exciting to hear and see for the first time. Part of the m/o of the festival is to give audiences a look at hot new plays in development that they can’t see anywhere else — and to turn them on to that uniquely exhilarating experience.
Are the audiences vocal?
Carla Milarch: Since we increased the frequency of Fireside a couple of years ago, the readings have been very well-attended. The audiences are very vocal, very opinionated, and it makes for wonderful stimulating feedback sessions afterward. I think that they are becoming people’s favorite part of the evening!
Who moderates the talkback and what format does the talkback take? How does it not become a free-for-all, with the playwright bombarded with feedback?
Carla Milarch: We do about a half-an-hour talkback after each reading, which I moderate. In order to keep us focused, I use “Carla’s three golden rules of talkbacks,” which I explain before every session. They are: “1.) There is no right or wrong feedback. We do not have to achieve consensus on how we feel about the play. 2.) Keep the feedback focused on the script and story. No critiques of casting, performances, etc. 3.) It’s not our job to fix the play. Try to avoid specific suggestions about changes to the play or prescriptive feedback.”
Can you share an example of a heated or especially passionate audience response?
Carla Milarch: Our talkbacks are always lively. We have a cadre of frequent fliers including a theatre journalist, a retired auto engineer, a CPA, and a local farmer, among others, and each of them has very different tastes in plays. It is so refreshing to hear all of their different opinions at each talkback, and I think that it is safe to say that at just about every play we do, we have someone who loves it and someone who hates it. There have been a few exceptions to that, and when everyone in the room loves the play, it can be particularly explosive — which is really exciting, to see people getting so revved up about new plays. A couple of examples of this were 1300 Lafayette East by Brooke Berman and Pulp by Joseph Zettelmaier, which have both gone on to full productions.
How do you choose titles and writers for inclusion in festivals? Recommendations? Prior relationships with writers? Contact with a larger network beyond Michigan?
Carla Milarch: Yes, yes and yes. All of these, and more. We are a member of the National New Play Network, which is a terrific resource, and our affiliation with that gives us access to dozens of new plays and playwrights, which we tap for the Fireside Festival. Also, I’m proud of the fact that the FNPF has now become a real factor in developing new voices here in Michigan. Having spots for 12 new plays each year to be read gives us the space to really develop new playwrights, and we have some new voices on the scene that I don’t think would be heard without the festival, which is awesome. I have a “Michigan Playwrights” list that I send notifications to for every festival, and that list is burgeoning. I also think that getting that notification from me sometimes lights a fire under playwrights (no pun intended!) to finish a draft or get something ready to submit. Having a deadline to write for can be really useful.
Have you ever chosen a title that came over the transom — unsolicited? Do agents send to you?
Carla Milarch: Definitely. All the time.
Is it accurate to say that the majority of writers in the 13 years of Fireside have been Michigan writers?
Carla Milarch: Not necessarily. I’d say the mix averages about 50/50. Although the March festival is all Michigan writers. It is our “Pure Michigan” installment!
Who chooses the titles, or is it a collaboration?
Carla Milarch: I have a programming committee that reads and rates each script, and our artistic director, David Wolber is a trusted advisor, but ultimately I “curate” the festival, and have final say on what goes in.
What was the genesis of Fireside? What need did you seek to fulfill?
Carla Milarch: PNT has long recognized the importance of new plays and the need for greater exposure and development opportunities for playwrights. We’re pretty ambitious and I think we’ve always realized that developing new work is really the pinnacle for a theatre artistically. It takes resources, it takes guts, it’s difficult, it’s risky, but it’s important, and it can be a way to contribute something lasting to the field that you can’t do when you’re just producing shows that have already premiered elsewhere.
You were there at the start.
Carla Milarch: Yes…it seems like only yesterday. PNT did its first Fireside in 2000, and I was there at its inception. I still remember where I was sitting in the old PNT offices on East Washington when we did our initial brainstorm on what we were gonna call this thing.
Why is it called “Fireside”?
Carla Milarch: “Fireside” hearkens back to the ancient art of storytelling. Our ancestors told stories around the fire, with nothing but the words and their voices. Now we tell stories under the lights, with nothing but our music stands and binders, the words and our voices.
Were there always several Fireside Festivals a year? This year you have three.
Carla Milarch: It has varied over the years, depending on the resources we’ve been able to dedicate to it. It started as an annual thing, then grew to twice a year, then was scaled back again to once a year during the recession, and now, most recently, it is up to its greatest frequency, at three times a year.
How many hours are put into each reading? Can you explain a typical process?
Carla Milarch: Each play receives 8-10 hours of rehearsal, with a director assigned by PNT, and actors cast by them from the Michigan actor pool (which is terrific.) We have a prescribed format for the readings which is very text based, pretty much a concert reading, with very little movement, and virtually no tech, aside from stage lights. The focus is totally on the storytelling, and nailing the characters, and the story beats, with very little movement and blocking. It’s a brass tacks approach, which can make for some mesmerizing theatre. Newcomers are often blown away by what a complete evening of entertainment it is, even with so few production elements.
Are the readings held in the mainstage space at Performance Network Theatre? It’s pay-what-you-can?
Carla Milarch: Yup. Mainstage, but on “dark” nights — Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. We shoehorn it right into our regular performance schedule, and do the readings on whatever set happens to be in there. The space seats 139, and admission is free with a suggested donation of $10.
If a playwright lives out of state — or not in Southeast Michigan — do you help with travel expenses? Is there an honorarium? Are actors paid? Is this an Equity-affiliated experience?
Carla Milarch: We do not have offer travel expenses or honorarium, just the resources to produce the reading, which we do under a Staged Reading Code with Actors’ Equity.
I gather that 99 percent of talkbacks include the playwright? That’s the point, right? Playwright Brooke Berman was not available to attend 1300 Lafayette East, so the experience was recorded.
Carla Milarch: Yes, that is the point. If the playwright can be there, that’s the best scenario, and if not we will either record the reading and talk back for them, or we will tech them in remotely like we did with Brooke at the 1300 reading.
We have a wonderful festival sponsor [Joseph C. Walters] right now who underwrites the rehearsal and production costs, but we’d love to find a corporate sponsor who can help us take the next step in offering travel stipends and honorariums for the playwrights. It really is so much better to have them there. But for now, we do what we can.