Enter, stage left, the volunteer reader

I was reading a play when I met The Girl. Again. A sensitive but angry teenager looking for her identity. I knew this girl. She was annoying as hell but would someday be a strong, beautiful woman.

She's in half the new plays I've read this year. OK, not half. But lots.

I met the character — her name is Stella — again Saturday. This time fleshed out by actor Ellie von Radics in an Ashland New Plays Festival reading of Carol Verburg's "Spin, or Twilight of the Bohemians."

The ANPF will wrap up its 2011 season at 2 this afternoon with a reading of Steven Haworth's "Fernando" at the Unitarian Center in Ashland.

I would probably never have met The Girl if I hadn't volunteered. Many nonprofits are doing good work every day in Southern Oregon. As a journalist, you shy away from joining because you might have to report on the group. I volunteered as a play reader with ANPF after semi-retirement freed me, partially, from a credo I'd borrowed from the army: Never volunteer.

Having done so I've disqualified myself from expressing any judgments about the plays in this space. And that's OK. I'll leave it to those who see these new works to form their own opinions.

What I can say is something about the workings of a local non-profit seen from the inside, a new perspective for a perennial outsider. It's holy writ that anything worth doing takes about 10 times as much work to put on as it appears from the outside. That very much applies to the act of presenting staged readings of new plays from around the nation. In the ANPF, as with many other non-profits, most of the work is done by volunteers.

The festival was founded in 1992 to encourage new work for the stage. By and by it lost momentum and was headed into hiatus a few years ago before being rescued by a group of enthusiasts and carrying on with the help of an energized board and a new artistic director. Doug Rowe is a longtime actor and director who came to Southern Oregon a few years back to play Willy Loman at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and stayed. As ANPF artistic director, he's had the support of a roster of actors that each year includes many from OSF.

Other than a few big names, playwrights struggle mightily to get their work to the stage. The dark thought may arise: Does anybody really read my stuff? At ANPF, 46 script readers in six different groups committed to reading 50 to 60 new plays each, from December to May. The script for a full-length play runs somewhere around 100 pages, maybe a bit more.

Each play gets multiple readings and gets discussed in multiple groups. Readers make notes to be able to defend their opinions in their groups. The first round eliminates a lot of plays. In the second round the readings get closer, the debates fiercer. People care about this stuff. The bloodshed in our group was ameliorated by the unflagging good humor and gourmet spreads of our gracious group leader, Norma Wright.

Semi-finalists are chosen at a meeting of all the readers in May, and the final choices are made by Rowe. This is a man who's acted in 23 movies, more than 50 TV shows and both on and off-Broadway. He has a pretty good idea what will play to an audience.

He phoned several months ago to ask what I thought of "Spin." I told him it was my favorite, and we compared notes for a moment. After the call, my visiting daughter asked who it was.

"That," I said with mock hubris, "was a guy who's directed Harrison Ford and Mike Farrell asking me what I thought of a play."

As if Rowe hasn't forgotten more than I know.

But about The Girl. She kept popping up in different scripts, her usual milieu being a quirky, dysfunctional family. She could be of any color or social class or at any stage of discovering her sexuality. Although obnoxious, she was a sympathetic character.

Did everybody take the same workshop? Is there something out there in the zeitgeist?

Because while the theater has its conventions, it's not constricted in the mold of, say, Hollywood movies. These are made by committees working for giant corporations aiming at a mass audience. The highly personal story that's anathema to the Hollywood studios is the playwright's very lodestar, so you expect variety.

I never figured out quite what's up with The Girl this season, but as I read Verburg's play, a funny thing happened. Her character quickly quit being The Girl and morphed into Stella, a breathing, flawed, complex young person I cared about. Credit Verburg, a San Francisco writer who founded a playwright's lab, headed theater companies on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and has had several of her plays produced around the nation.

The other three playwrights whose work was chosen are also pros. Maybe that says something about the state of the art, and maybe something about the ANPF reading process. What I know for sure is that the big pay-off for all those months comes when the actors take the stage and the house hushes. Like the man said, the play's the thing.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.

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