Its longtime leaders have left town, its duration has been slashed by a third, and its volume of offerings is a fraction of what it once was – if you haven't attended PlayFest in a couple of years, you'll hardly recognize it. And according to Mark Routhier, the recently installed head of the Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays, that's exactly what the 10-year-old event needs to become a world-class platform for emerging playwrights.
Routhier, who recently took over for Patrick Flick and David Lee as director of new play development at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Partnership With UCF, is no stranger to PlayFest; he's been a guest director here for five years, helming readings and full productions like Brecht in L.A. and Opus. Formerly the literary manager for the Magic Theatre of San Francisco and the National New Play Network, Routhier told me he brings "a good amount of relationships with playwrights who are writing new plays today" to the job.
Continuing an evolution that began last year, Routhier's goal has been to "streamline" PlayFest and make it more "user-friendly" for artists and patrons. PlayFest "was this gigantic play festival over the course of 10 days with sometimes as many as 30 plays going on," Routhier says. "People didn't really know when they should be here and when not to be here, and which plays to pick on which days. It was too long of a period for industry professionals to show up and stick around and see all of the works."
Last year the event was trimmed to four days; this edition is down to just three, while retaining its mix of panels, workshops and readings. Routhier says that makes it easier to attract artists from outside Orlando: "[Performers] having to come in and rehearse for five days before the festival even starts, and then be around for 10 whole days as associate artists while the [festival] is going on, that's like half of a month. It's impossible to get guest directors in here [for that long]."
Routhier and OST artistic director Jim Helsinger reviewed more than 250 sample submissions and read 60 to 75 full scripts. "We shave it down to about 12 or 15 top contenders. Jim and I pored over those, and finally chose six." Routhier is proud that this year PlayFest has "a strong gang of playwrights who are nationally recognized, that don't necessarily submit to other theaters because their plays are right down our mission statement alley." However, one area that he'd like to improve on in the future is the participation of Orlando-area playwrights, adding that they need "to search a little bit harder for some local work."
An important element that has been retained is the keynote speaker, which Routhier says is one thing that makes PlayFest stand out from other new-play festivals. He is "super excited" about this year's guest, "more so than even [2011 speaker] Philip Seymour Hoffman."
Jon Jory, former producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and founder of the influential Humana Festival of New Plays, "has kind of legendary status in the theater world." Jory will lead an acting workshop on Saturday before delivering his address, which will be followed by a reading of his new Tom Jones adaptation (based on Henry Fielding's novel, not the Vegas singer). "I think he going to come chock-full of very entertaining and informative stories about his past and theater in general," predicts Routhier. Perhaps he'll even finally confess to being the real "Jane Martin," the elusive pseudonymous author of Anton in Show Business.
Of the seven scripts being explored this year, Routhier has especially high expectations for the future potential of Leveling Up, by Deb Laufer, and Connected, by Lia Romeo, which both "deal with technology and how it is affecting young people predominantly." Another potential standout is John W. Lowell's The Standby Lear, about an aging actor and his supportive spouse.
When asked how the PlayFest experience benefits his work as a playwright, Lowell replies: "I'll learn the crucial things about my play double-quick: Does this line work? Does that joke land with the right punch? Does this moment or beat or scene accomplish the most with the least? The PlayFest is the greatest gift a playwright can get: a no-pressure zone to make something which might be good into something which might be great."