Kennedy Center finds new voices with 15 years of Page-to-Stage

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON – Labor Day weekend will bring plenty of barbecues.

But if you’re staying in the nation’s capital, you might also want to head to the Kennedy Center to check out the 15th annual Page-to-Stage New Play Festival from Saturday through Monday.

Featuring more than 50 performances from theatre companies across the D.C. area, the festival looks to highlight new creative voices, providing a staging ground for young playwrights to show their stuff.

“Sixteen years ago, Molly Smith at Arena Stage hosted a great conference called ‘Who Needs New Plays?’ Everybody in town said, ‘We do,'” curator Gregg Henry told WTOP. “They said the Kennedy Center is neutral territory for all the theater companies in town, so we decided to host a free event for all the theater companies in Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis — the larger D.C. area.”

While theater companies were on board, organizers weren’t sure whether audiences would respond.

“We thought, ‘Labor Day Weekend? Who’s gonna come on the last holiday weekend of the summer? We’re nuts,'” Henry said. “Thirty-five hundred people later, we realized there’s something here: 3,500 people showing up for readings, open rehearsals, the equivalent of an open-mic night. Just the curiosity factor: they love what’s new and want to see something before anyone else gets a chance.”

How does Henry select which new plays to highlight?

“The curation process is just me keeping my eyes open and my ears open,” Henry said. “Who’s doing interesting work? What young company has revealed themselves at the Fringe Festival or at the Source Festival? And who’s stretching the definition of new theater?”

Indeed, every play at the festival is making its first public appearance in front of an audience.

“It’s all first-time stuff,” Henry said. “It’s a great opportunity for the playwrights, or let’s call it ‘ the creative squadron,’ for them to get their new work in front of an audience, get audience feedback, test it out, see what needs trimmed, see what needs a lot more rewrites. It’s a great testing ground. A creative team needs the equation to be made complete, and that completion is an audience.”

Expect stripped-down productions with raw performances by actors still holding their scripts.

“Many of them have gotten rewrites just that morning or many of them spent the hour beforehand making cuts or putting in edits,” Henry said, saying you can still see notes in the margins. “It’s all done pretty much in neutral clothing, no sets, no costumes, unless there’s an absolutely necessary prop. It’s kept that simple so the audience’s imagination can run as wild as the play wants them to.”

Are there any festival success stories that have gone on to become renowned playwrights?

“Oh yeah, quite a few,” Henry said. “And we have quite a few renowned playwrights actually living in Washington and working in the Washington, D.C. community – Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Ken Ludwig, John Strand, Bob Bartlett, Gwydion Suilebhan – these are all people who’ve had works from the beginning, from Year One after 15 years at Page-to-Stage. And they keep returning because I think they see it as a good chance to grow as a writer, to connect with audiences and to share.”

Doors open 30 minutes prior to the start of each performance, with first-come, first-served seating. These performances are staged throughout the Kennedy Center complex, including both Millennium Stages and the various special events lounges on either side of the opera house. Making the most of the vast interiors, playwrights are practically popping out of every crack of the Kennedy Center.

“Every nook and cranny in the Kennedy Center,” Henry said. “The building is so beautiful with the white marble and the red carpet, but it’s great to see young artists and more established artists sitting on the steps with a script in their hand, getting ready to share something with the audience.”

Participating theaters include Forum Theatre, Mosaic Theater Company, First Draft, Brave Soul Collective, Initiative Student Theatre, New Sass, The Welders, Monumental Theatre Company, Crash of Rhinos, Pinky Swear Productions, Venus Theatre Company and African-American Collective.

Meanwhile, Arts on the Horizon stages theater for infants, Catholic University showcases work from its graduate playwright program, and there’s even productions from a local juvenile detention center.

“Apparently, the class really grabbed hold of this project,” Henry said, maintaining anonymity for the facility. “This is a chance for kids to talk about something that was grappling their circle of friends, they had a great writing teacher to get them to express it and talk about dramatic form and to use the language that they’re used to using, which in this case happens to be the language of hip-hop.”

The playwrights are now finished at the detention center, but their colleagues are showing support.

“Their class, who is still at the detention center, are coming down to be there to see the work, so I think that’s pretty damn thrilling,” Henry said, beaming. “By bumping up against other young artists and seeing other kids, mostly from the D.C. and Baltimore community, who are using language and expressing themselves in a dramatic form … who knows what step that’s going to encourage?”

On top of the scheduled performances, it’s also a great networking opportunity for young creatives.

“This year we’re going to try to make good use of the networking opportunity,” Henry said. “We’ve got this huge events space on the Roof Terrace called The Atrium. It’s enormous and we’re actually converting it into a speakeasy, lounge, bar, food area with a performance space, where if people want to get up and share some work, they can do that. But otherwise it’s really a chance to just congregate, talk to audiences, talk to each other, and pick the brain of a more experienced playwright.”

That’s right, the Kennedy Center will transform its Atrium and Roof Terrace into a café and beer garden, partnering with Restaurant Associates to provide beer, wine and spirits at a reduced price. There will also be a karaoke after-party inside the Atrium at 9 p.m. Saturday. Then on Labor Day, the Atrium will serve free, first-come-first-served hot dogs, chips, and soda beginning at noon.

“It’s a rich, rich menu,” Henry said.

Yes, the food menu may sound exactly like Labor Day, but at Page-to-Stage, it’s all a labor of love.

Click here for the full schedule. Listen to the full interview with Gregg Henry of Page-to-Stage below: 

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

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