"This is our second annual new play festival," says Austin Playhouse artistic director Lara Toner Haddock. "Last year it was a national search and we received almost 800 applicants, which was a little overwhelming... and we really didn't feel like we serving the playwrights. So this year we wanted to bring the focus in and really figure out a way to have an impact on the local community, so we made it a Texas-based festival."
That change resulted in a still healthy but more manageable number of submitted scripts, allowing the Austin Playhouse judges to spend a little more time with each work before narrowing down the selection to ten finalists.
From there, they decided on three winners -- C. Denby Swanson's Nutshell, Reina Hardy's Eidophusikon, and Lisa B. Thompson's Monroe. Those three plays will be presented as staged readings at this weekend's Festival of New Texas Plays.
Haddock is hoping that seeing staged readings of works-in-progress will help audiences to understand the artistic process a little more.
"I think a lot of times audiences sometimes don't realize what plays go through in a new play development process," she says. "They think they just sort of spring fully formed from the playwright's mind and are presented on the stage. But theater is such a collaborative process, and part of that collaboration is with the audience."
C. Denby Swanson, one of this year winning playwrights, agrees that staged readings help immeasurably when constructing a new work. Her play, Nutshell, has had one public reading (earlier this year in New York), and, as Denby says, "a couple of living room reads in my house... and that's been super helpful. Just to... hear the words in order. In a voice that's not mine."
Nutshell is largely a one-woman show, inspired by the real life of Frances Glessne Lee (no relation, as far as I know), an heiress who used part of her wealth to endow the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine and to create the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of 1:12 scale miniature crime scenes meant to help train detectives in how to search for clues at actual violent crime scenes. The Nutshell Studies were remarkably detailed, down to tiny-but-functional pencils and miniature coffee makers that contained actual coffee grounds. They're still in use today, as part of an annual training seminar.
"There's a magical realism element to it," says Haddock of Nutshell. "Which actually, all three of our winning plays have. And they use magical realism in very different ways. I also really just want to... be part of the journey for these playwrights and kind of give them as much in the way of resources and information to help them craft these plays."