For one intense day on Saturday, January 24, two acclaimed playwrights, Richard Hellesen and Amy Fox, will transform the Garvin Theatre at Santa Barbara City College into a giant writers’ room. The occasion is the third season of PlayFest Santa Barbara, a nonprofit partnership dedicated to engaging theater audiences by involving them directly in the development of high-quality new plays. Hellesen will conduct a playwriting workshop at 10 a.m. At 2 p.m., a group of professional actors directed by PlayFest artistic director Jeffrey Meek will read a new play by Fox, The Club, after which the author will take questions and suggestions from the audience. At 7:30, PlayFest co-artistic director and chair of the theater program at SBCC R. Michael Gros will direct a reading of All She Wrote, the latest play from Hellesen, in the same audience-oriented format. All three PlayFest events are free and open to the public, so if you’ve ever entertained the idea of writing a play, or even if you have ever left the theater wishing you could have offered your observations on a work while it was still in progress, there’s no excuse.
Hellesen is a veteran playwright with a serious track record in regional theater, including strings of successful productions at the South Coast Reperatory and at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Fox is a rising star from New York, and she’ll be coming to Santa Barbara from the Sundance Film Festival, as she is also in demand as a screenwriter. The plays they are bringing are brand new, and with such proven talent involved, they are likely to be extremely well written. Fox’s The Club takes place at the central character Robin’s baby shower. At 36, Robin has become pregnant, and she gets together with her mother and her three best friends from college to celebrate the expectation of the blessed event. What ensues is an unexpected bout of truth telling that starts with Robin and soon spreads through the whole club. Can these women remain friends for the long haul, or has too much changed for them to connect on any deep level? Fox’s play Summer Cyclone earned her high praise from critics following its New York premiere, with the New York Times citing her “warmth of understanding.” The story is told partly in flashbacks, suggesting a cross between Harold Pinter and Bridesmaids.
All She Wrote, Hellesen’s play, is set in contemporary Hollywood and features a protagonist, Danny, who desperately needs to believe in something again after his screen dreams have been dashed by that most dreaded of film-business mishaps — turnaround. Digging through a box of used books at a yard sale, Danny seizes on the discarded diary of a young woman as his next creative obsession. As he gets deeper into the material, unexpected connections to the author arise that complicate not only Danny’s life but also the lives of those nearest to him. Hellesen is a master storyteller with a great ear, and this project is sure to be enthralling.
The chance for the audience to participate by offering observations and suggestions is at the heart of PlayFest’s mission, but Gros assured me that the talkback portions of the program will be moderated to keep things on track and to avoid spending too much time on suggestions like, “Why can’t this play be about polar bears?”
PlayFest Santa Barbara takes place Saturday-Sunday, January 24-25, at Santa Barbara City College’s Garvin Theatre. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit playfestsantabarbara.org.