Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, September 21-22, 2018
This year, the fourth annual festival of staged readings at Long Wharf Theatre, curated by Long Wharf literary manager Christine Scarfuto, arrives a month earlier than last year. And that means it’s easier to take advantage of this always interesting sneak peek at plays on the way to major productions, before the New Haven theater season opens.
When I spoke to Scarfuto last week, she was taking a break from watching a staged reading. For her job at LWT, she reads about 150-175 plays a year, for both the Long Wharf season and for the festival. She believes a staged reading of a play is preferable to reading it oneself. And sometimes, I’d add, it can be better than a full production where unrealized factors can distract from a play’s virtues.
The advantage of the staged reading as mounted at the Festival—with actors, a director and some staging—is that not only might we hear the voice of the play more clearly, but, as Scarfuto points out, “audiences get to be ears and eyes in the room” for the ongoing development of the play, as it becomes more solidified. “A Talk Back follows each play and the author and the director of the production are present” to engage with the audience about the play, its process, and to take comments and questions.
This year, a play that was featured two years ago in the Festival—Boo Killibrew’s Miller, Mississippi—will receive a full production in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-19 season, a development that, Scarfuto said, was one of the hopes for the Festival. While virtually all of the plays featured in the Festival have gone onto productions, this is the first time that a Festival play will be produced by Long Wharf, a gratifying outcome.
The means by which plays come to Scarfuto’s attention varies from play to play, but she’s always on the lookout to “find new voices, different perspectives.” The plays selected for the Festival have generally been worked on, and most have had productions, but, as unpublished plays, the works at the Festival can still be considered in process.
“The purpose of the festival is to introduce our audience to exciting new plays and playwrights and to create a pipeline for future productions at Long Wharf Theatre,” Scarfuto said.
Three playwrights are featured this year: Kevin Artigue, Angella Emurwon, and Torrey Townsend.
Kevin Artigue (Sheepdog) writes plays, TV, and film. Raised in Redlands, CA, he lives in Brooklyn, and his plays have been developed with Page 73, the Public Theater, South Coast Rep, the National New Play Network, New York Theater Workshop, Portland Center Stage, Golden Thread, Theatre of NOTE, the Playwrights Foundation, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Great Plains Theatre Conference, University of Iowa, and the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. A former member of Interstate 73 Writers Group and the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, Artigue holds an MFA from Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
Angella Emurwon (Strings) is a writer, award-winning playwright, stage director, and screenwriter based in Tororo, Uganda. Of her three radio plays (Blackberry Girls!, 2009; The Cow Needs a Wife, 2010; and Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, 2012), two have won BBC Audio Drama Awards. Strings, her first full-length stage play, received a dramatic reading directed by Rogers Otieno at the 2014 Kampala International Theatre Festival. She is a Sundance Institute East Africa fellow, a member of the 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and a Maisha Film Lab screenwriting and youth mentor.
Torrey Townsend (Night Workers) received an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. Townsend’s most recent play, The Workshop, was produced by theater incubator SoftFocus, directed by Knud Adams, and starred Austin Pendleton. A New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” The Workshop was described as “an incisive and insightful tale of ambition and envy, inspiration and mediocrity,” and by Sara Holdren at vulture.com as “one hell of an evening of theater.” Other works include A Night Out and Home Universe (Knud Adams, director).
For Scarfuto, “new work is the lifeblood of the theatre, it’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. We’re thrilled to bring these new voices to our audience.”
Strings, by Angella Emurwon, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, kicks off the festival Friday, September 21, at 7 pm. Scarfuto has known of the play for a few years and is very excited to be able to include it this year. Set in a village in Uganda, the play is “a gorgeous, rich family drama,” both “comical and poignant.” A patriarch returns to his family after an absence of 20 years, during which time the image his family has given him of their lives is markedly different from the reality. The play uses different voices in its telling, including African song chants and is, Scarfuto said, ultimately about “coming to terms with what life is, and the choices we make in our lives.”
Sheepdog, by Kevin Artigue, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, is next up, on Saturday, September 22, at 5:30 pm. Artigue is a writer Scarfuto has known since their days at Iowa. Already familiar with his work, she chose Sheepdog because it “speaks to this moment,” particularly in light of a recent killing of a black man in his own home by a white female police officer without apparent cause. In Artigue’s play, set in contemporary Cleveland, an interracial love story between two police-persons, one female and black, the other white and male, becomes fraught with “fall-out” after the male officer, in the line of duty, shoots a black man, raising questions and issues in his lover’s mind. The play, Scarfuto said, “speaks to a lot of the issues America is facing right now surrounding police violence in the black community, both from an intellectual and emotional perspective. It’s also a riveting story. It really pulls you in.”
Night Workers by Torrey Townsend closes the Festival on Saturday, September 22, at 8 pm. Townsend’s play came to Scarfuto through director Knud Adams, who has worked with the playwright on several of his plays. Scarfuto knew of Townsend’s work, as The Workshop “got lots of press,” and she found Night Workers particularly relevant while reading it this summer. Set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in a repurposed bar in Brooklyn, the play, Scarfuto said, is “deeply human and not sentimental” as it treats of “resilience on the road to recovery.” With the dismaying number of overdoses requiring medical intervention on the New Haven Green this summer, the play struck a chord in its sympathetic treatment of substance abuse and the way disparate lives can touch one another through common difficulties.
Each of the plays has distinctive situations to offer audiences and unique perspectives on our times. There will be a Happy Hour with half-off drinks before each reading and other refreshments available. “It’s a great opportunity for people in the community to meet and mingle with artists and fellow theatergoers, to see great work and have a good time. That’s the energy we want to cultivate at the festival,” Scarfuto said.
Tickets are $10 each, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting longwharf.org.
The festival is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burry Fredrik Foundation.
Long Wharf Theatre
September 21-22, 2018