Year two is typically the toughest one for any new enterprise. The thrill of getting things off the ground is long gone, and the hard work of making something that will last is just getting started. But fortunately for PlayFest Santa Barbara, terrible two looks set to provide the kind of excitement that makes things feel new again and ready for the long haul. Founded as a free program to provide the Santa Barbara theater community with a chance to witness and participate in the development of important new theater works, PlayFest takes place over two evenings and an afternoon in the newly remodeled Garvin Theatre at Santa Barbara City College. PlayFest president Jim Green and artistic directors Jeff Meek and R. Michael Gros will bring in theater professionals from all over the country for staged readings with audience feedback. The program has already gotten significant traction, too; one of 2013’s featured works, E.M. Lewis’s True Story, went on to receive a first full production at the Passage Theatre in New Jersey just months after being performed at PlayFest as a staged reading. This year’s program includes Three Views of the Same Object, a serious play about aging by the award-winning playwright Henry Murray on Friday, January 24, at 7:30 p.m.; The Oy of Sex, an adult comedy by Len Richmond on Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m.; and a concert reading of a new musical, City of Light, with a book by Gabrielle Wagner Mann, music by Jan Roper, and lyrics by Santa Barbara’s Julie Weiner on Saturday at 2 p.m.
All events take place in the Garvin, and it’s free and open to the public.
The question of how and where to develop a new play has become one of the most frequent topics of discussion among theater professionals in this century. With MFA programs spitting out playwrights every year and dozens of outstanding writers mired in the “mid-career” doldrums straight through their forties, it’s a cold world for budding Eugene O’Neills and Arthur Millers. Regional theaters can’t afford to alienate subscribers, so they mostly play it safe by programming a mix of surefire revivals and hot new properties drawn from an increasingly narrow range of predictable writers and sources. Although younger artists do occasionally break nationally — Annie Baker, author of Circle Mirror Transformation, for example — statistically, it’s still establishment figures like David Auburn, Tracy Letts, and David Ives who dominate the annual lists of most-produced shows.
Enter Jeff Meek, an actor on a mission. Born and raised in Southern California, Meek tore through the distinguished undergraduate acting program at UC Irvine when it was at its peak, scoring dozens of major roles and gaining valuable experience that he then put to work as a featured player in some of network television’s top daytime dramas. Drawn back to the stage in search of a more immediate experience, Meek began turning up in major roles like Stanley Kowalski at major venues like the South Coast Repertory. This fall he played the lead in 2013’s most produced play, David Ives’s Venus in Fur. Reviews of his performance and the production, which was staged at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, were so strong that I got in the car and drove to the Gaslamp to check it out. Meek was perfectly cast as the playwright in this powerful play based on the work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It was some of the best, most exciting theater I saw in 2013.
In addition to his continuing success as a leading man, Meek now teaches acting here and in Ventura, where he works with a variety of students on everything from establishing simple stage presence to auditioning and getting an agent. In between it all, Meek is nurturing his dream project, PlayFest Santa Barbara.
“One of the things I want people to understand is that this is a chance to influence the development of a work,” he explained. “When E. M. Lewis came through, and the audience gave notes, several of their suggestions wound up going into the play when it was actually produced,” said Meek. It’s precisely this kind of collaborative environment that he and cofounder R. Michael Gros set out to create.
One of the people benefiting from that vision this year is Julie Weiner, the lyricist responsible for one third of City of Light. Weiner has lived in Santa Barbara off and on since she was 13, but City of Light, which she developed in the Academy for New Musical Theatre program, was inspired by the four years she lived in Paris. It’s the story of Molly, a runaway bride from Southern California who goes to France to reconsider her impending nuptials with Patrick, a handsome blue blood from an old-money Pasadena clan. City of Light is intended to be a full-blown, straight-ahead romantic comedy in the traditional idiom of great Broadway classics, complete with dance numbers, but it’s set in the present, and, at least for this concert reading performance, the boogieing will be limited to what Weiner’s collaborator Gabrielle Wagner Mann refers to as “standography,” as in dancing while reading from a music stand.
“I lived there for four years,” Weiner recalled, “and from what I could tell, for some reason, Paris is the place to go for people having a midlife crisis — I must have met 10 people while I was there who were trying to figure out what to do with their lives.” For Light protagonist Molly, it’s the place where a new family takes her in, where she meets her nemesis, and where big decisions get made — sometimes in mid-song.
The City of Light creative team met at the Academy for New Musical Theatre, a two-year program that challenges artists to accept the collaborative process as fundamental to creating successful musicals. For Weiner, the school was a catalyst, taking this UCSB development professional and lifelong theater bug from audience member to serious lyricist through a rigorous set of classes, exercises, showcases, and critiques. “I’ve had Molly in my head for four years” said Weiner, “and at the first concert reading, when I finally heard an actress sing the words I had written for her, and saw her inhabit this person that I helped create, I was stunned.”
Want to be a part of this kind of creative excitement? I invite you to join the audience this weekend for PlayFest.
PlayFest Santa Barbara takes place at Santa Barbara City College’s Garvin Theatre on Friday, January 24, and Saturday, January 25, with performances at 7:30 p.m. both nights and a matinee of the musical on Saturday at 2 p.m. The event is free. For more information, visit playfestsantabarbara.org.