This past weekend, June 2- June 5, City Theatre held its annual Momentum Festival: new plays at different stages. Momentum is another way City Theatre focuses on its mission of new play development. Though it marks the end of their 2015-2016 season, artistic director, Tracy Brigden says, “Momentum is not a consolation prize for our playwrights. It’s called new plays at different stages for a very specific reason.” This festival grants audiences access to staged readings of new plays, with the ability to have conversations with the playwrights after in an effort to polish the piece.
Five plays were chosen for Momentum 2016, and I had the chance to witness the Saturday program. The day included two staged readings and a playwright’s panel. Jackson Torii Bart’s scrapmetal/scars kicked off the day. Bart is a City Theatre Young Playwright’s Festival Alumni from 2010. City Theatre aims to foster playwrights, and scrapmetal/scars is a perfect example of this. The company allows playwright’s they’ve worked with in the past time to grow, and use City Theatre as a refuge and base for developing their skills. The reading was directed by Stephen Santa who said “scrapmetal/scars is a lyrical and fluid piece about the dynamics in the Hunts Point community in The Bronx where beauty and tragedy do a dizzying dance.”
Later in the night, was the “City Speaks” Playwright’s Panel. The panel, led by Clare Drobot, Director of New Play Development, included Momentum playwrights’ Sharon Washington, Liza Birkenmeier, James McManus, and Benjamin Sheuer who just closed his run of The Lion. Each writer had the chance to speak on their craft and the opportunities that exist as an active playwright. On Friday, Washington had a reading of Feeding the Dragon, which will be fully produced next season, about her coming of age in a New York Public Library where her father was the live in custodian. She spoke to the unique experience of being both playwright and performer, as Feeding the Dragon is a one woman show, and her comfort in referring to herself as more of a storyteller than a writer. McManus who’s reading of his play Dry Bonesm was held on Sunday, said how much of an impact his childhood and general life experience has had on his voice. He never found himself to be a “theater” person; growing up Irish Catholic, he would find himself at bars with his relatives where he witnessed some of the greatest storytellers. As an observer, he watched as bar patrons would repeat the same stories over and over but change small details while gauging the audience in order to tell the most impactful version of the truth. He also cited seeing August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at the Pittsburgh Public Theater when it was still at its Northside location. “I knew those people on stage,” he said, Wilson’s play showed him that theater was just an extension of humanity, and the more relatable it is, the greater power a story has.
Birkenmeier emphasized the importance of getting herself into writing groups, and being around her contemporaries who are also hard at work. She herself is a 2016-2017 emerging writer’s group member at the Public Theater in New York. Her play Radio Island was the final reading of the night. Radio Island is a blend of bending theatrical conventions and traditional black comedy. Birkenmeier’s writing is sharp, idiosyncratic, and consistent. The most interesting facet of Radio Island is the character of “The Operator”, the stage directions of the piece turned into a character, as if they were an operating manual to an extremely precise machine of government conception. The precision of her language aids to the plot of Ellen, a woman taking care of her ailing mother, who now takes a job as an international hostage negotiator currently bargaining with Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Radio Island is taut full of intrigue, character, humor, and depth. With the goals of Momentum, Birkenmeier will be able to take Radio Island and polish and craft it more strongly after feeling the audience react to the piece and give their own feedback.
Momentum is an expression of moving. With multiple plays at different stages, it is City Theatre’s hope to give insight to playwrights on a personal and interactive way. Momentum also works to establish solid relationships with playwrights, in the hopes of working with them in the future. Like next season with Feeding the Dragons, it would be no surprise to one day see a season featuring a play written by Bart, Birkenmeier, or McManus. With another busy season of ahead of itself, City Theatre continues its tradition of introducing Pittsburgh to bold, new plays.
For information about City Theatre’s 2016-2017 season, click here