The next great American play may have premiered earlier this month in Sacramento, even if the show still hasn’t sold a single ticket.
Over the weekend of Dec. 7-9, the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, the $30 million home of the B Street Theatre that opened in early 2018, hosted the 17th annual National New Play Network Showcase. Held in Sacramento for the first time in its history, the NNPN Showcase brought in over 200 writers, artistic directors, theater managers, independent producers, literary agents and publishers from across the country for staged readings of six unproduced but production-ready new plays.
“This is a really great thing for us, not only to be able to let others see the venue but also because all the readings are cast with local talent,” says Lyndsay Burch, artistic director of B Street Theatre. “It’s a nice chance for the talent to get exposed to other theater producers, literary managers, publishers.”
After a speedy rehearsal process that used almost every inch of the 48,000-square-foot Sofia, the cast performed while perching their scripts on music stands and employing limited stage movements. Even with the no-frills production values, performing for a captive audience of theater insiders offered invaluable exposure for the local actors.
However, the stakes were even higher for the six playwright finalists, especially as NNPN member theaters such as B Street begin to prepare their 2019 schedules. “If you get presented at Showcase, you have a 90 percent chance of getting a full production within the next 18 months,” says Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network. “I don’t think anybody else can claim that.”
National New Play Network is an alliance of professional theaters devoted to developing and producing new plays. NNPN’s efforts are especially important for creatives working outside of the New York City theater spotlight. “We’ve been able to really celebrate the work of artists living regionally and taking an artist that might normally have had a career only in Philly or Sacramento or Kansas City, and have them be introduced to the nation in a way that encourages the creation of new work,” Barnett says.
To get considered for Showcase, a play must be submitted by a member theater such as B Street. Through a lengthy adjudication process, the 70 entries were whittled down to a diverse final six. “We want to make sure there’s a range of styles of work, different things that might appeal to different people, we want to make sure there’s a diversity of voices from the writers,” Barnett says. “I like to think that we have created a real snapshot of the work that’s being made in America, but that just gets to be seen at this moment, and then across the country in the next year-and-a-half.”
The six plays ranged from the racially charged sci-fi of Lisa Langford’s Rastus and Hattie to the topical drama of Anna Moench’s Mothers to the pitch-black comedy of Steve Yockey’s Bleeding Hearts, which the Los Angeles-based playwright describes as “a borderline absurdist farce about income inequality.”
Yockey wrote two other plays that previously played at Showcase, including Blackberry Winter, which Capital Stage performed in 2014. “You’re very lucky if you’re a playwright that gets a play in Showcase because it’s instantly going to be seen by more artistic directors than you could ever get to read it,” he says. “My experience with the last two showcases was that once the play is read, the people who are interested and excited about it are going to come and talk to you afterward. It’s taking a process that is usually abstracted over email and phone calls and condensing it down.”
With all the requirements for multiple theaters and copious rehearsal spaces, a festival as large the NNPN Showcase could never have been held in the old, cramped B Street Theatre space, and this year’s event offered a chance to show off the new digs. “So many of our members had never been to Sacramento or been to see the beautiful new space that they have here, so it’s a bit of a celebration of what they’ve accomplished,” Barnett says. “I think it’s been a big surprise for a lot of people.”