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On Stage: City Theatre rolls with 'Momentum' to nurture new plays

Saturday, March 29, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

City Theatre, whose mandate is the production of new and newish American plays, is adding a new play development festival, "Momentum 2003: New plays at different stages." The four-day event, April 10-13, will include readings of four new plays, a playwrights' panel, social events and performances of "Fair Game" and "Birdie Blue," the new plays already up and running on City's two stages.

More succinctly, City artistic director Tracy Brigden calls the festival "a really great weekend with a bunch of parties" in which "all these actors and playwrights mill about," interacting creatively.

The need to help playwrights polish their scripts "is probably the first thing I talked about when I got here," Brigden says. "We commission and produce new plays, but we have no mechanism by which they can get developed." she started a similar festival in her previous job at Hartford Stage.

To distinguish what Brigden expects to become a yearly event that will attract national notice, City also will use the weekend to showcase its annual Frankel Award, previously given during its annual fund-raising gala. "As the gala got bigger, the Frankel Award was getting cramped between the food, auction and entertainment," Brigden says.

This year's Frankel awardees will be Carol Brown, long-time City board member and former head of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, two of whose plays City has premiered.

Brigden is refocusing the Frankel Awards to honor those associated with City Theatre. Since previous artistic director Marc Masterson started the awards in 1994, criteria have varied: Last year, awards went to the Warhol's Tom Sokolowski and theater philanthropist Phil Chosky. Hatcher is the first non-Pittsburgher honored, but Brigden notes that he's a Steubenville native and "feels like a native son, he's been here so many times."

In staging new plays, Brigden says there is often developmental work to do, but "with a 3 1/2-week rehearsal, you can only change so much." So two of the "Momentum" plays will be Adam Rapp's "Gompers" and Michele Lowe's "String of Pearls," already on City's schedule for full production next season. The other two, Leslie Ayvazian's "Lovely Day" and Honour Kane's "autodelete://beginning dump of physical memory//," are being considered for the future.

"Gompers" and "String of Pearls" will be given four days for each director and playwright to use as they think best. Directing "Gompers," Brigden plans to rehearse for 1 1/2 days, then do the first (minimally staged) public reading and give playwright Rapp a day for rewrites before a second reading. The other two plays will have less rehearsal time and be read once.

Those cast so far include Helena Ruoti, Bingo O'Malley, Doug Rees and Martin Giles.

Supported by Mellon Financial Corp., City's New Play Circle and "a lovely three-year grant" from the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, the festival hopes to encourage sought-after playwrights to entrust their new work to City.

Direct out-of-pocket expenses for the festival will run about $25,000, but the cost to audiences is minimal: $25 buys a pass for everything (except "Fair Game" and "Birdie Blue"); individual readings will cost $5; call 412-431-CITY.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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