Saturday, May 6, 2017

Raising the Next Generation - Phoenix Theatre's Caleb Reese Festival of New Plays and Musicals

by Jennifer Haaland

Robert Kolby Harper, producer of the annual Caleb Reese Festival of New Plays and Musicals says asking about why Phoenix Theatre (PT) dedicates a season slot to produce new works is like asking why we have children.

"It's lots of work. We don't know how it will turn out. It takes the village," he answers like a patient parent.

New works in various stages are a critical piece of the American theatre experience.  As such, they are a dedicated portion of PT's future and represent a growing segment of the Phoenix audience as well.

Lots of Work

"Play writing is solitary work. But the goal is collaboration. The whole point is to get it up on its feet, so responses are essential," Harper says.

Playwright Angelica Howland loves being hip deep in that work.  Over the last three years she's shifted her focus at PT away from acting and toward being a creator of the story at the festivals.

"It's much more naked," she says, "to go from someone else's words and placing a bit of yourself in a role to exposing your own entire story."

"We have to commit to the exposure development requires, otherwise no new stories emerge," says Harper, who has overseen the festival for seven years. "Throughout time human themes may stay, but stories shift. They need to be updated to stay relevant.  Here [the festival] is how we make those stories better."

Turn Outs

Turns out, audiences are charged by new works in development, too.  Longtime PT supporter Scott DeWald and his wife Deborah have been loyal fans of the professionalism that's "always high" at Phoenix Theatre.

"But there's something almost electric about new works," DeWald says regarding the ongoing rewrites. "Like improv, these actors are on edge with a nervous excitement about the spontaneity required."

"Our goal has been to make it more 'festivally,' more exciting," Harper says about the constantly evolving festival format.  "A daylong event with conversations between experiences, at the end of the day, helps the most."

"As a playwright, its safest to be naked surrounded by people who care," says Howland about PT's inclusive approach. "Forward ' was my first baby that I put out into the world. Phoenix Theatre invested at such a deep level.  The process there is all about the playwright."

Evolving over the years from one new staged reading each week of July to the multiple concurring shows within two weekends during the regular season hasn't just made the event more 'festivally.'  Those conversation breaks between successive new works help patrons flesh out reactions. Their feedback then contributes to how the play ultimately turns out.

"I love that we get it while it's still raw," DeWald says from his audience perspective. "It can even bomb a little in spots  but some parts will still work beyond belief.... We're getting at what theatre can achieve when it's unplugged."

The Village

"Theatre geeks" are how the DeWalds see themselves.  From the voracious consumer to the curious attendee,  new works need input from an array of sources.  J. Wayne Holden, a patron who "sees everything" and holds season subscriptions to nine Valley theatres, is another of those sources.

"The festival offers such a broad spectrum. We're part of developing new pieces," says Holden, "like Angelica's ghost story [Forward].  I loved commenting and then watching that one change."

Howland says, "So many times a new work or story has opened my eyes to new insights. Forward went through two years of changes. I needed the input from all the different voices to solidify the story."

"It's so much more interesting than theatre seasons that are constantly pushing retreads," Holden says, noting new works have been appearing in other theatres' seasons as well. "I like that it's spreading around."

"Where else can you see seven new plays in two weeks?" DeWald adds.  "When we spend our cultural exploration money on local productions, we are allowing someone here to make art."


The Caleb Reese Festival is part of Phoenix Theatre's Incubator. If Phoenix Theatre is the parent to the festival and thereby grandparent to the bevy of new works birthed over the years, then the Incubator is Phoenix Theatre's midwife.

"Growing theatre involves lots of stages. We've mapped out at least thirteen junctures that our Incubator can intercede," Harper says. "Those junctures allow us many ways to help artists discover what hits or sticks."

From story boards to readings, workshops to talkbacks, the Incubator continues all year long.
As funds become available, Phoenix Theatre is easing into commitments to one or two shows next year.

Through Phoenix Theatre's Incubator and Caleb Reese Festival, theatre babes of all shapes and colors will continue to rise strong.  Like so many commencement addresses we hear this month, Harper's words about children honor the hard work creation involves, while celebrating a future pregnant with potential.

"We try to do our best. It involves lots of trial and error. We love them."

Click HERE to learn more about this year's Caleb Reese Festival of New Plays and Musicals.

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