By Isaac Butler
Summer is upon us, bringing with it New York City's surfeit of theatre festivals. There's fringe festivals, Shakespeare festivals, musical festivals, eco-friendly theatre festivals and more. Sitting in the midst of all of this is the Summer Play Festival, AKA SPF. Founded in 2004 by Executive Producer Arielle Tepper Madover to, in her words, fulfill "the need for an outlet for emerging writers, directors, actors and designers to be able to work on their craft." According to Tepper, "I had been producing on Broadway and there was no opportunity for people that were not established yet. The festivals that existed did not offer any kind of guidance to the artists, nor did they have the money or ability to produce their own work, so I knew we needed to find a way to achieve that. The theaters that were interested in producing emerging writers were able to offer readings, but not performances in front of a paying audience, so these were all of the issues that we tried to work out." These core values, of producing the work selected, of showing it in front of performing audiences and of funding the productions have helped elevate SPF into the informal ranks of New Play Development festivals that occur all over the country, from Sundance in Colorado to the O'Neill in Connecticut to Jaw West in Oregon.
The last five years have also seen swift growth and change for the festival. Submissions have more than doubled since their first year, and SPF has moved from Theatre Row to the Public. As director of programming Sam Levy explains, "The Public has such a longstanding commitment to nurturing new voices, and [Public AD] Oskar [Eustis] has been very active in pursuing partnerships with organizations that do the same. And after our first Festival at the Public last year, we feel very much at home there. Being part of such a revered institution has been incredibly awe-inspiring ". At the same time, the partnership is mutually beneficial: housing SPF helps The Public showcase new voices that normally would have little chance of being performed on the Public's stages.
This summer, several of those voices will come from other countries, including Australia, England and South Africa. "Over the last few years we've made a conscious effort to introduce ourselves to writers and organizations outside of the United States," Levy explains, "so we're getting a lot more work submitted from non-American writers, which increases our range of choices…it's a very happy coincidence". Some of this is no doubt due to SPF's very large reading group and open submissions policy. SPF uses 110 volunteer readers on three continents, and this year received amidst their 1400 script submissions plays from Japan, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, Singapore and 10 other countries. When asked how they know what they're looking for, Levy offers that SPF doesn't "have a particular aesthetic… we try to find plays and musicals that cross a variety of genres and styles, and are perhaps indicative of a voice that hasn't entirely matured."
And what are those international writers hoping to get out of their brief sojourn to New York City? Rick Viede, the Australian playwright responsible for this summer's Whore, cheekily responds, "International fame and fortune is a good start. Otherwise the opportunity to meet with other artists from a different country and get a sense of the way the industry works in NY," while fellow Australia Nicki Bloom (writer of Tender
), seeks "to gain a fuller understanding of my play, by seeing how the rhythms of a new accent and the reaction of a different audience might influence it". She further gushes, "The experience so far has been incredible. Being part of a festival like SPF is an absolute gift to a writer. " Making it all possible is the internet and attendant advances in technology. "Thank God for Skype!" British playwright Dougal Irvine enthuses, "I've had conference calls with up to 5 people, long lists of friendly emails just before and just after I go to bed… The people of SPF have been incredibly accommodating, often having lengthy chats about dramatalurgical issues when they've barely been up for five minutes!"
Photo above is of Greg Keller, Ally Sheedy and Katherine Waterston from the play, Reborning
More about SPF here