Playwrights' Round Table's "Summer Shorts" is a consistently ambitious exercise that's been known to yield some spotty results. PRT, a locally based organization dedicated to the nurturing of new writing talent, spends a considerable portion of its yearly energies hunting down and evaluating short plays by unproven, unaffiliated or otherwise underappreciated authors. The handful of pieces that receive the highest marks from PRT's reading committee are produced in a summer performance anthology that's intended as a writing-skills showcase a way to underline names that bear watching in the years to come.
It doesn't always work that way. Every summer, there seems to be at least one vignette in the bunch that leaves audience members shaking their heads and wondering, "How did that get in there?"(That said, viewers are usually split as to which plays are the clunkers, which only proves the subjectivity of the whole enterprise.) Having served for a time on the reading committee, this reporter can state with some assurance that the stuff that doesn't get produced makes the stuff that does look like Eugene O'Neill. So it's encouraging to note that John Goring, the president of PRT's board, sees an overall rise in the quality of this year's submissions.
"The scripts are getting more intelligent," Goring says. "`They're` more insightful, a little more daring." He points to the sly Love in Falling, "a piece that refers to what happens when you only have 10 minutes to live." Written by veteran contributor Chuck Dent (who's pulling double duty at this year's festival by directing Goring's own MSG), Love in Falling was the No. 1 vote-getter from among the 37 entries considered for this edition, Goring says. And it wasn't that Dent was trading on his pedigree as a proven generator of dramatic material: All scripts are submitted under pseudonyms, guaranteeing that the quality of the product trumps personal issues every time.
That's how this seventh annual "Summer Shorts" came to include Upgrade, a rare foray into dramatic fiction by Orlando Weekly theater reviewer Al Pergande. ("We opened the `winner's` envelope and said, 'Oh my God, it's a critic,'" Goring remembers.) In the play, two passengers aboard an airplane find that they share a so-called "angry connection." Another piece that impressed Goring is Cecil, author Dave Womble's take on the vampire mythos. Treating the subject in a way Goring says he's never seen before "both Gothically horrifying and funny" the play is directed by Drew Dalire (of the recent Orlando International Fringe Festival production Women Behind Bars).
"Drew is bringing the black comedy to Dave's Gothic sensibility," Goring says.
The pedigree of the directors who have been tapped to helm the various playlets may be the element PRT is most proud of this year. Upgrade is directed by Temenos Ensemble Theater co-founder Christian Kelty ("We've wanted to work with him for a long time"), while Love in Falling benefits from the artistic guidance of Theatre Downtown/SoulFire maven John DiDonna. Other guest directors include prominent theatrical producer Margaret Nolan and actors Heather Leonardi and Dawn Wicklow. Together, they can "take the cutting-edge work and get more cutting-edge with it," as Goring puts it. Since the directors have almost full control over production choices including casting their ability to improve the quality of "Summer Shorts" seems substantial.
While the festival is back on familiar turf at Valencia Community College, PRT itself remains on the lookout for a permanent place to plant its round table. Housed over the past few years at ill-fated venues like the Cherry Street Theatre and the Vine, the organization is pursuing spaces that include the Lowndes Shakespeare Center and the Orlando Repertory Theatre to provide a home base for its year-round program of readings, workshops and stage productions. There's a different event going on every month, Goring says: This installment of "Summer Shorts" is PRT's 106th public presentation, and not every host site can commit to that level of activity.
"It's going to be rough for a while," Goring foresees. But if the quality of PRT's outsourcing keeps going up, he might just find someone who can write their way out of it.