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The New Works Festival has become a must-see event

Friday, September 10, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A week before the first curtain and the box office already was booming. At the beginning of a big, big season for Pittsburgh theater, one of the hottest events has no name actors, celebrity playwrights or legendary scripts. Although few people have ever heard of anyone in the show, organizers say reservations are going so quickly, there may be few walk-up seats left to sell.

With near-capacity attendance during the last two years, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has secured a position of distinction. The showcase of new one-act plays has never launched a national hit, but invariably some plays that debut at the festival move on to bigger stages.

The festival's audiences don't go to bask in the aura of celebrity or marvel at some new level of spectacle. It's an adventuresome crowd that's willing to experiment with the works of unknown and at times unbridled playwrights.

 
    New Works Festival

WHERE: Hamburg Studio Theatre, 57 S. 13th St., South Side.

WHEN: Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 6 and 9 p.m., Sun. 4 and 7 p.m.

TICKETS: $6; subscriptions $20 (includes parking); reservations recommended; 412-881-6888.

 
 

In recent years the festival has slipped its regional boundaries to include burgeoning writers from as far as Washington state and Cairo, Egypt, and there's some evidence that New Works is beginning to be recognized nationwide as a potentially valuable outlet for new artists. Submissions increased from 138 last year to 150.

Locally, festival subscriptions doubled between 1997 and 1998, and on most nights the event is expected to fill nearly all the Hamburg's 99 seats.

"If anything, I'd say overall attendance is flat, but it's a good flat because we can't really accommodate any more than we're getting," says New Works board president Tracey Taylor Perles. "But the biggest trend is that submissions are going progressively up and out of the city. That tells us that playwrights are hearing about us and hearing good things."

Now that New Works has become one of the must-see events of alternative Pittsburgh theater, Perles, elected board president after the 1997 retirement of founder Donna Rae, says she's working to keep it that way. Previously unwritten rules are being documented, belts are tightening and the entire operation, which includes 175 administrative, production and performing volunteers, is becoming more organized.

"Part of the reason we've been so

successful is that we micromanage this one festival and that's it," she says. "We have become sophisticated as a board and everybody comes with some experience, and we're fortunate to have a great group of talented volunteers. Although we're not making money from this, everything is handled professionally. When you walk into that board meeting, you have to have X, Y and Z ready."

This year, with help from a volunteer attorney provided by ProArts, New Works was granted non-profit status. Although they have yet to acquire a funding grant, Perles says they've been able to bring in most of the $18,000 in annual operations costs through ticket sales and private donations.

"Although we're not trying to make money, it'd be nice if we could have a little cushion," she says, "if we could get through the festival without sweating until the very end."

Additional changes implemented this year or planned for next season are aimed at improving communications among participants and eliminating administrative headaches.

The number of producing companies has been raised to 20: 12 involved in mainstage productions, two in the Children's Festival, and six added to produce staged readings of honorable mention plays.

"Before we just had individuals directing the readings," says board member René Conrad. "Now we're trying to bring in new, fledgling companies to direct them, hoping that the experience will help them to grow." Rules and responsibilities for everyone from the playwrights to the concession volunteers have been compiled in an official New Works manual.

Lost your book? Everything, including an archive of past participants, is neatly filed in cyberspace at the festival's new Web site (www.pittsburghnewworks.org).

"For me the Web site is wonderful," says New Works' longest-serving volunteer and board member, Jeff Leonard. "We don't have an office -- we're always working on the fly. I can get whatever I want from wherever I am, as long as there's a computer there."

Soon to be included on the site is a data bank of bios and photos of Pittsburgh actors, whether or not they've ever participated in New Works. "It's one more thing we can do to help the local theater community," says Leonard. "Once it's up, we hope producers and directors will scan it and find people to audition."

A new electronic newsletter sends festival information as well as Pittsburgh audition notices and general theater news to anybody who asks for it.

Writers whose plays don't make the cut now get a constructive critique from the panel of New Works readers who winnow the submissions. (The producing theaters choose who actually gets produced.)

"We've gotten e-mail from people who didn't get selected thanking us for the feedback," says Perles. "They're grateful that we were able to give them that level of attention, even if we decided not to do their plays."

Additional changes limit the number of submissions from each playwright and increase the ticket price to the Children's Festival from $2 to $3.

"I suppose there will be more changes to come, as we get increasingly sophisticated in how to do this," says Perles. "But the things we're doing are hopefully making it a more inclusive, more entertaining showcase of new plays."

Pittsburgh New Works Festival

Hamburg Studio Theatre, 13th and Gingham Streets, South Side.

Main Stage Events

Thursday and Friday 8 p.m.; Saturday 6 and 9 p.m.; Sunday 4 and 7 p.m.

Tickets: $6; $20 subscription (includes parking); reservations recommended; 412-881-6888.

September 9-12: "Drawing the Line" by Randy Kirk, produced by South Park Theatre, directed by Diane Masters; "Beef Junkies" by Jon Dorf, The Summer Company, John E. Lane Jr.; "Deathcrone - 2000" by A.L Trone, McKeesport Little Theater, Patricia Kording.

September 16-19: "A Musical Level of Pain" by Joy Jones, Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Eileen J. Morris; "The Rest of Us" by C.P. Stancich, Timespace Theater Company, Todd Betker; "Ukimwi" by Tom Coash, Thoreau NM, Jennifer Shutterly.

September 23-26: "Quentin Tarantino Slept Here" by Anthony Letizia, Unseam'd

Shakespeare Company, John Imro; "The Day Leo Durocher Died" by James McManus, CCAC South Campus, Lora Oxenreiter; "Bomber Wing" by William C. Kovacsik, Penn Avenue Theatre, Michael E. Moats.

September 30 -- October 3:

"Not Lightly Chosen" by Robert C. Wettig, Little Lake Theatre, Kevin J. Saunders; "The Last Gooseman" by Michael Murray, The Heritage Players, Michael Sheets; "The Hermit" by Shaun Rolly, Gemini Theater Company, David Philip Tener.

Children's Theater

When: Saturdays and Sundays Sept. 18 through Oct. 3, 1 p.m.

Tickets: $3. 412-881-6888.

"Thunder Mountain" by Sandra Fenichel Asher, Playhouse Jr. of Point Park College, David Vinski; "Rex the Mighty Hunter" by Tim Menees, Prime Stage, Erin Fleming.

New Works Awards Gala

Where: Riverwatch, Boardwalk, Strip District.

When: Sun., Oct. 10, 5:30 p.m.

Tickets: $18, $20 (if paid after Oct. 1); 412-243-7342.



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