Next weekend, Northern Stage will invite local audiences to become part of the creative process, sharing readings of new plays with the playwrights, actors and creative team at the Upper Valley’s resident professional theater.
“There’s nothing so thrilling as being invited into a play in development,” explains Jess Chayes, the company’s new associate artistic director. “Everything might not work yet, the play might not be finished, but there is a kind of electricity in watching something taking shape.”
And these performances are even more essential to the playwright.
“Often these readings are the first time they can hear a play out loud in front of an audience,” Chayes says. “They will learn from that where the jokes are, what moments are working, what moments make the audience lean forward, what moments make the audience tired.
“It’s an incredibly valuable experience for the writers and for the creative teams as well, to see how the plays are working.”
Northern Stage will present the sixth annual New Works Now Jan. 18 and 19 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. “Choices People Make” by Jessica Andrewartha will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday; “Where Are We Going?” by Kate Benson is at 2 p.m. Saturday; and “Citrus” by Celeste Jennings will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. A post-show conversation will follow each reading.
The plays were chosen from some 60 submitted scripts through a process that involved 10 readers, including Dartmouth students in a Northern Stage intensive theater program. From the 10 finalists, three were chosen by the Northern Stage artistic staff.
“It really is about identifying plays that we think really will speak to Northern Stage audience, and identifying plays that we think may have a future in the American theater or Northern Stage,” Chayes said Monday by phone.
She spoke from New York, where she is directing Helen Banner’s “Intelligence,” about three women in the State Department who are learning diplomacy, that opens tonight off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop. Chayes also established residence in White River Junction in September.
In Andrewartha’s “Choices People Make,” Dr. Rosalinda Tamayo and her research partner Dr. Harold Cooper have created one of history’s greatest scientific breakthroughs, and her name is Athena. Now Dr. Roz and Athena have a problem. Athena and her body may be cutting-edge technology, but they’re subject to the same questions women have been grappling with for centuries.
Andrewartha is a Seattle-based writer of more than six full-length plays. “Choices People Make” has already won the inaugural Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting and received a workshop in Dartmouth’s VoxFest as part of the award.
In Benson’s “Where Are We Going?” seven people are rolling through the rural South in a passenger van. An acting company on tour, they experience the joys and frustrations of the American highway: stopping as necessary at Cracker Barrel, breaking down with car trouble and pulling up at a theater to discover respite from the road. Along the way, petty arguments and deeper philosophical discussions ensue about the America they’re traveling through.
Benson’s plays include “[Porto],” produced by the Bushwick Starr in 2017 and the WP Theater and the Bushwick Starr in 2018, “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes” (an Obie Award-winner), produced by New Georges with the WP Theater in 2015, “Desert (for Now),” “Super Magic Wild Forest” and “Lee Miller.”
Jennings’ “Citrus” is a choreo-poem that follows the emotional journeys of tribulation, struggle and resilience among Black women from 1840 to present day. The 178 years of American history are explored through movement, costume and original poetry.
“Citrus” was developed in the Dartmouth Theater Department and presented last spring as Jennings’ senior fellowship project. She was awarded the prestigious Sudler Prize in the Arts.
“Once you’ve chosen the right play, it’s all about picking the team that will help that play come to life,” Chayes said. “In the type of reading we do, they have 29 hours to work together over a week. So, ideally, that will provide an environment where the actors and director can be rehearsing, and the writer will have some time left to write. New pages come up over the course of the workshop, and rewrites will be incorporated up until the day of the reading.”
Still, for Chayes and Northern Stage, success is based on the quality of the product.
“The first thing we’re looking for is great writing, whether it is a choreo-poem, like ‘Citrus,’ whether it’s a more naturalistic character-based drama like ‘Choices People Make,’ or it is a more existential ensemble piece like ‘Where Are We Going?’ All of them feature incredibly good writing.”