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New Works festival continues development mission

| Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

As the Pittsburgh New Works Festival celebrates its 20th season, little has changed except its location.

And that's just fine with those involved in this year's festival, which begins performances of the staged one-act plays Thursday in the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks.

That first festival featured nine one-act plays performed over three weekends in the Lester Hamburg Studio at City Theater on the South Side, followed by a gala awards ceremony at a local restaurant.

Over the years, it expanded to its present format -- a dozen plays performed in sets of three over four weekends -- and has moved through a succession of locations to its present address.

Plays continue to be produced with a minimum of props, costumes, scenic elements or lighting and sound effects. The budgets and ticket prices remain low.

But its mission is as grand as it was when its founder and former executive director Donna Rae oversaw the nonprofit organization's first festival in 1991: The fostering of the development of playwrights and original plays.

"It started as a mission and that is what we're about. I don't know anything else like it, really," festival director Mindy Rossi-Stabler says.

"Unlike productions that focus attention on the director's concept or the actors' performances, the play and its playwright are center stage at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival," says Lora Oxenreiter, the festival's managing director. She's also a board member and director of one of this year's plays.

Playwrights are encouraged to attend rehearsals, rewrite scenes and discuss the play with the actors and director.

Though it would be nice for a play to have a life beyond the festival, that's not the only measure of its worth, Oxenreiter says.

"Even if it never goes any place else, if what the audience sees is something that touches them in some way, you feel pride in that," she says.

Scott Sickles was a student at Carnegie Mellon University when he first had a play -- "Harmonic Convergence" -- produced at the 1996 Pittsburgh New Works Festival. He's now a scriptwriter on the daytime drama "One Life to Live."

"It was a very educational experience," he says. "You learn how to write economically and what to look for, plus the hard lesson of how to edit or that it's a mistake to butcher it, and how to learn from your mistakes."

For playwright and South Park resident F.J. Hartland, who is participating in his 10th festival this year, getting a play accepted by Pittsburgh New Works was an affirmation of his career choice. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 1982 and becoming frustrated with trying to get his plays produced in New York City, he decided to submit his play "Summer Shower" to the 1994 festival.

"I was discouraged," Hartland says. "I decided to submit one of my plays. If they took the play, I knew maybe I had it. If they didn't, maybe I didn't."

The play was accepted and won second honorable mention for contribution by a playwright.

"New Works got my career rolling," Hartland says. "I made a lot of connections because I worked with so many theaters and met a lot of actors and directors. It's good in terms of networking."

Putting actors, directors, playwrights and other theater practitioners in touch with each other was what Rae hoped for when she began the festival.

Rossi-Stabler says that's exactly what is happening.

"It seems like we do a lot more than produce plays. We bring companies together," Rossi-Stabler says. "The off-shoot has been the exposure and working together of companies and actors from all over."

Additional Information:

Pittsburgh New Works Festival

What: A dozen one-act plays each performed by a different local theater company. Three plays are performed each weekend for four weeks.

When: Thursday through Oct. 3, at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Admission: $10; $8 for students; $25 for a festival pass

Where: Father Ryan Center, 420 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks

Details: 412-394-3353, New Works website or ProArts website


Thursday-Sunday: 'The Joy of Theft, by' James C. McKelly of Opelika, Ala., produced by the Heritage Players; 'Call Back,' by Jim Hinkley of Edmonds, Wash., produced by Theatre Factory; 'Shaving Lessons and Half-Windsor Knots' by F.J. Hartland of South Park., produced by CCAC South.

Sept. 16-19: 'Fetish' by Joseph Talarico of Squirrel Hill, produced by the Red Masquers; 'Bread' by Randy Gross of Enola, produced by McKeesport Little Theater; 'Sex With a Mathematician' by Pete Barry of Easton, produced by Thoreau, NM -- A Production Company.

Sept. 23-26: 'Salty, Sour, Bitter, Sweet' by Paula Martinac of Regent Square, produced by Greensburg Civic Theatre; 'Rhythm of Revenge' by Kathleen Conner Compass of Keystone Heights, Fla., produced by Phase 3 Productions; 'Fine' by Butch Maxwell of Wheeling, W.Va., produced by The Summer Company.

Sept. 30-Oct. 3: 'Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in the Morning' by Geoffrey Craig of Great Barrington, Mass., produced by the Rage of the Stage Players; 'Fortune Teller' by George J. Bryjak of Bloomingdale, N.Y., produced by the Baldwin Players; 'Drop It' by Michael Rubino of Monaca, produced by Cup-a-Jo Productions.

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