Ashland New Plays Festival offers playwrights “an oasis in Ashland,” says its artistic director, Kyle Haden, during a telephone interview from Pittsburgh.
Haden and his family split time between Ashland and Pennsylvania, where he teaches first-year acting and period styles at Carnegie Mellon University.
He’s also cast in Quantum Theatre’s premiere of “Inside Passage” in the Steel City, playing multiple roles in playwright Gab Cody’s story about a reunion of siblings and foster siblings in Alaska.
“It’s based on Cody’s true experiences and is being produced for the first time,” Haden says. “It’s intimate, heartfelt and funny.”
It’s the kind of play Haden can sink his teeth into.
Haden chooses four plays from sometimes as many as 400 to read at ANPF’s annual flagship play festival every fall.
“Often there are similarities in plays during a particular year,” he says. “We’ll see themes emerge that people are culturally aware of, certain themes they might respond to. One of the trends we’re certainly seeing now is more women playwrights, more representation both in female leads and persons of color and gender fluidity. It’s indicative of the trends of theater as a whole and how those trends create opportunities.
“Most want diversity, so it’s exciting to have different stories with different viewpoints,” he says.
ANPF will present “Your Best One,” a family drama by Los Angeles playwright Meridith Friedman, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 25, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at ashlandnewplays.org or at the door.
Friedman’s play “The Luckiest People” was a finalist at ANPF’s 2015 festival.
“It was the first play I directed for ANPF,” Haden says. “I put together a cast that included Rex Young, James Edmondson, Paul Michael Garcia and Kate Berry.
“It’s also exciting to tap into the local acting pool and so many talented actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” he says.
After workshopping Friedman’s “The Luckiest People,” the play went on to be fully staged by Curious Theatre Company in Denver. There, Friedman was commissioned to write a trilogy using “Luckiest” as a springboard.
“Your Best One” is the second in the trilogy, and will receive the same treatment from ANPF before it premieres in May at Curious,’ Haden says. ‘Which is really exciting. We’re giving it the last reading before it debuts, and then we’ll help workshop the third part that also will go up at Curious at some point in the future.
“Friedman is in the early development of this play, so we’ll be helping her to determine the play’s plot and structure. When it’s finished here, ‘Your Best One’ is pretty much what audiences will see in Denver.”
Young, Edmondson, Garcia and Berry reprise their roles in “Your Best One,” and Cameron Davis reads the part of a new character, Josh, an adopted child who was mentioned in the first play.
The story centers on widower Oscar Hoffman and his grown children, Richard and Laura. When a member of the family becomes seriously ill, the family rallies with wit and neurosis.
Criteria for ANPF selections is basically straightforward. The organization accepts the first 400 scripts that come through the door.
“We have a counter on our website,” Haden says.
The scripts must be full-length dramas or comedies, original works, no adaptations and no musicals.
“Then we go through the process of testing the winners,” Haden says. “We work on them and get them ready for production. We allow playwrights the chance to get their plays in front of audiences. It doesn’t matter how much they rewrite or how many times they have readings with actors and directors. There’s no substitute for having an informed, intelligent audience seeing your play. That’s what happens at our play festival. Then the playwrights can discover what works and what doesn’t, what beat didn’t work or what character isn’t being tracked.
“We are fortunate to have so many theater followers in Ashland and the Rogue Valley,” Haden adds. “We follow theater here like Southern towns follow college football. There’s a real passion, a real knowledge that’s deeper here than most places.
“Ashland’s an ideal spot to workshop plays, host forums for audience commentary and help playwrights improve their work,” Haden says. “The festival is a great mechanism for helping shape stories into what playwrights want them to be.
“That’s our focus as opposed to producing plays, which is something we certainly won’t rule out,” he says. “We feel our role is to fulfill, provide an oasis for playwrights, to really help them shape their goals, and to form partnerships with West Coast theaters to see them produced on stages. If we had an opportunity to produce something, if the money was there or we had a permanent home, then we could talk more about that. Right now, we feel really good about what we’re doing and where we’re going.”