Plenty of good ideas are born and batted about in living rooms. However, few of them emerge and endure with the kind of impact and longevity that the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has enjoyed. Now entering its 28th year, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) has continually evolved from its origins as living room startup by festival founder, Donna Rae. Rae was part of Pittsburgh’s legendary late-night Chiller Theatre where she played the Terminal Stare. The festival was her brainchild, and Rae went on to spend a decade as festival director.
This year, Dek Ingraham is serving as festival director for his second season. Like most festival participants, Dek has a very long history with the PNWF. He initially got involved in 2008 as a director for a producing company. In 2010, he joined the festival’s board, then took the helm as festival director in 2017.
Ingraham is clearly passionate about PNWF. It’s a justified case of Pittsburgh pride as there’s no other festival like this in the country. PNWF is so unique because it brings together 18 different local theatre companies, each of which produces a new play. There’s a focus on local playwrights given the festival’s Pittsburgh locale and the fact those authors are readily available to be involved in the production, which is encouraged.
However, this year’s festival garnered a record 341 submissions representing seven countries and 35 states. The selection process is extremely rigorous. Each play must be in standard formatting and is blind assigned to two or three judges. The judges follow a 100-point scoring rubric, awarding up to 25 points in four different categories. In addition, they offer written critique and commentary. This is shared with each playwright, so all of the playwrights benefit from highly coveted professional criticism. In fact, the festival sometimes sees resubmissions in subsequent years that incorporate the feedback.
All 18 participating theatre companies receive copies of the 50 plays with the highest scores. Each company whittles the top 50 down to their own top 10 list. The companies then come together collectively under the PNWF umbrella to literally draw numbers and pick the play they’ll produce. The theatre with #1 gets their top choice, and it goes from there. While you might think everyone would be frantically clamoring for that lone unicorn play, because 18 different, unique companies are represented, it’s not uncommon for every company to get their top pick.
Just as play selection brings together the 18 participating theatre companies, auditions are also held collectively with all companies present. To keep it fair, the theatre with the last pick of the plays is rewarded with their first choice of actor. The benefit of the communal audition is theatre companies gain exposure to the talent they may not have seen before. This helps both actors and theatres expand their networks, and it effectively grows the theatre community, a festival goal Ingraham is particularly passionate about.
This year’s Pittsburgh New Works Festival has four programs (A, B, C, and D), each of which runs for five performances over two weekends. Each program contains three plays, making a trilogy of sorts. Program A kicks off the festival and features The Survivor, a play by Pennsylvania playwright Gordon Bennett, which focuses on the controversy around a Holocaust denier. Also in Program A are AleynaAnna by Alltson James and Alex Flanigan’s Survivor’s Guilt.
In Program B, Canonsburg’s Little Lake Theatre adds to their already robust seasonal calendar as a first-time mainstage festival participant. They will produce Annie LaRussa’s Brace, which is about a crashing plane, providing continuity with Program A’s AleynaAnna which takes place at JFK airport.
Program C exemplifies the benefits of PNWF’s policy of removing playwright names during the selection process. Ken Levine’s When Romcoms Go Bad will be part of Program C. Levine is an Emmy winner who’s directed over 60 TV shows. However, Program C also includes the play Malum by recent MFA graduate Ashley Rice and Lawrence Paone’s I Forgot to Worry.
Program D rounds out the festival and ends it with a literal bang thanks to Kelly Bancroft’s play Where the Star Fell, which is based on a true story about an Alabama woman hit by a meteorite. D also includes Michael Champagne’s The Civil War and An Unexpected Mourner by Michael Wolfson.
The Pittsburgh New Works Festival started on August 19th and 26th with two nights of their LabWorks series. Program A launches on August 30th. All performances are at the Carnegie Stage, and the festival continues through September 23rd. For the bargain price of $50, you can score a festival pass, which means each play is only $4 – less than a latte.
Plus, if you attend all four programs, you get to vote on the winners for the best playwright, actor, actress, etc. These honors are bestowed at the post-festival gala, which will be on October 7th at Cefalo’s in Carnegie (tickets are $35 each and include appetizers). Learn about the PNWF lineup and gain voting privileges by purchasing a festival pass (or buy single tickets) online at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Come out and join the 28th memorable season of this truly unique Pittsburgh theatre offering.
Photos courtesy of Brittany Creel and the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.