Once upon a time, they did it in New Haven. No, I am not talking about drinking cups at Mory’s, or even about poor little lambs losing their way and going “baa, baa, baa.” At the height of Broadway’s prestige as the location for serious drama, big plays like A Streetcar Named Desire had their world premieres not in New York, but in New Haven. There the presumably more forgiving audience could participate in the excitement of witnessing a potential classic in its penultimate draft, while the director, playwright, and producers could continue to tinker and tweak the production in anticipation of a later Broadway debut.
This opportunity to develop new plays — and the thrill of discovery that comes with it — is what a new partnership between a group of experienced television and film producers and Santa Barbara City College intends to provide this weekend when they initiate a program called PlayFest Santa Barbara. The events of the first PlayFest begin on Friday night and run throughout the day on Saturday, and they include staged readings in the recently remodeled Garvin Theatre, workshops on acting and on commedia dell’arte, and opportunities for attendees to interact directly with the talent, which includes not only playwrights Catherine Butterfield, EM Lewis, and Barbara Epstein but also an impressive roster of top Hollywood actors and Santa Barbara professionals such as Joseph Bottoms, Mitchell Thomas, Ken Gilbert, and E. Bonnie Lewis. In an extraordinarily generous and confident gesture, Jeff Meek, Michael Gros, and the other producers of the inaugural PlayFest are offering the entire program at no cost to the public, with the simple proviso that reservations be established in advance online at playfestsantabarbara.org.
Last week I spoke with two of the driving forces behind PlayFest, R. Michael Gros, cochair of the SBCC Theatre Arts program, and Jeffrey Meek, a successful film and television actor.
How did this idea for PlayFest come about?
Michael Gros: Jeff and I were old school friends, and when we realized that we were living in the same community again, we began to share that original excitement that we had once felt for the word as it is revealed onstage. We talked about the need for support on a national level for the development of new plays, and from there we turned to the idea of doing this kind of work in a community such as Santa Barbara, where talent and resources are so abundant. As the new cochair of the theater program at Santa Barbara City College, and as someone with a beautiful new theater complex to program, I naturally went to Jeff and said, “We need some software for the hardware.”
Jeffrey Meek: I was talking to one of the city’s top philanthropists at a performing arts benefit, and as we were reflecting on the extraordinary development over the last few years of the city’s theater capacity, we agreed on one thing — people don’t go to buildings; they go to shows. Our ambition with PlayFest is to have a few weeks a year in which the film, theater, and television industries all come together in Santa Barbara to intertwine. We’ve seen what Roger Durling has been able to accomplish with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in just a few short years, and we’d like to achieve the same kind of impact not only on the city but also on the theater community at large. Eventually we would like to see PlayFest evolve into a highly competitive international submission-based festival, but for this first year, we knew we would have to work with people that we already knew.
Is it true that the entire festival will be free this year?
MG: The entire weekend is free to the public. We consider ourselves to be “venture culturalists” — we are willing to speculate with our time and resources on the intelligence and taste of the Santa Barbara theater audience. All the shows will include a question-and-answer session following the performance, and there will be a special brunch fundraiser on Sunday for those who feel strongly that they like what they have seen.
How do you see PlayFest changing as it develops?
JM: It’s our intention to take this to the next level very soon, primarily by offering significant support to contemporary playwrights in the form of residencies here in Santa Barbara and including teaching components at Santa Barbara City College. SBCC has really been the key player to make this whole thing possible — not only because of the Garvin Theatre facility but also because of the tremendous support that PlayFest has received from SBCC faculty.
MG: Absolutely, my colleagues really believe in this. It took a lot of meetings to make it happen, but in the end, Jack Friedlander, the executive vice president of SBCC, became our most active advocate and passionate supporter. It’s our hope that this PlayFest will become a regular stop for playwrights, actors, agents, and producers who are excited about the future of theater in America.
PlayFest Santa Barbara runs Friday-Saturday, January 18-19, at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre. For a complete schedule of the plays and events, visit playfestsantabarbara.org.