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William McCann: ‘Appetizer plays’ could serve as an answer to the need for the development of new works

Kentucky Playwrights Workshop, Inc. is a non-profit that provides opportunities to and for the state’s playwrights, with the goal of encouraging the development of new works. As part of that mission we commission new plays and sponsor the Kentucky New Play Series.

In prior years the KNPS’s winning plays have been produced at the Kentucky State Fair; some of those plays have also been anthologized. This year, though, we did not produce the works; instead we are seeking theatres from across the state that agree to produce the plays as part of their season, to produce a 10-minute play before each of their full-length productions.

As an appetizer is intended to help prepare a diner’s palate for the wonderful meal to follow, a short play can prepare the audience for the joys and heartbreaks of the evening’s entertainment that is to follow.

Clearly, an appetizer play represents opportunities for playwrights, but also for theatres. For playwrights, the opportunity for a play to be seen is what they seek; that a longer play might be commissioned or produced is their Holy Grail. For theatres, appetizer plays represent the opportunity to expand their play offerings in future years by introducing playwrights other than those they have traditionally produced.

How many times will season ticketholders laugh uproariously at John Patrick’s The Curious Savage or be ‘shocked’ by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So appetizer plays represent a way to widen a theatre’s offerings without alienating their sponsors. Indeed, theatres can educate their season ticket holders about different playwrights, their plays, and their ideas.

So far 25 playwrights have participated in the Kentucky New Play Series and their plays were produced at the Kentucky State Fair. Those playwrights hailed from Ashland, Columbia, Corinth, Danville, Flatwoods, Georgetown, Lexington, Louisville, Morehead, Richmond, Russell Springs, and Winchester. This year’s finalists in the Kentucky New Play Series—the play title, playwright, and town/area of residence—are:

• “Grandmothered Inn” by Richard Cavendish, Richmond
• “
Status Pending” by Teri Foltz, Ft. Thomas
• “The Lovebirds” by Nancy Gall-Clayton, Metro Louisville
• “Those Unanswered Questions” by Jonathan R. Harris, Burgin
• “10 Minute Play” by Tommy Jones, Richmond
• “The New Bed” by George McGee, Georgetown
• “Hearts Desire” by Cheri Powell, Louisville
• “Off with Yer Head” by Rebecca Ryland, Danville/Montana
• “
On the Plains of Abraham” by Stephen Taylor, Lexington
• “
Death of an Inmate” by Derek R. Trumbo, Sr., Burgin

Recently, the alternative to not producing any new works has become to host festivals of new 10-minute plays in which playwrights are mostly paid in “exposure” instead of dollar bills. Theatres ranging from Louisville’s Bard Theatre (with its annual TenTucky Festival) to recurring (but not necessarily annual) festivals in Owensboro’s Theatre Workshop Owensboro, Lexington’s Studio Players, to Middlesboro’s Middlesboro Little Theatre produce such festivals.

Likewise, many colleges and universities (Ashland Community and Technical College, NKU, UK, UPike, Transylvania, and WKU are all exemplars) produce festivals of short plays to give their students opportunities to see their works staged.

In each case, the theatre makes (some) money (maybe) and the playwright gains some notice, particularly if their play is voted “Audience Favorite.”

For many playwrights, the opportunity is more important than compensation. But the truth is that the current situation does not benefit theatres in the long run because it doesn’t expand the theatrical canon. A broader canon by more diverse playwrights can make theatre more appealing to our state’s increasingly diverse communities.

We hope that the KNPS, over several years, may help change things. We hope as new short works by Kentucky playwrights are produced, that those playwrights might be commissioned to write new longer works by theatres, or that the full-length plays that they submit will be produced as a result of having first had short works produced.

This year’s KNPS scripts generally require a couple of actors (though two have four characters) and either a bare stage or a table and chairs comprise the set. Most of the plays are comedies; though clearly Death of an Inmate by Derek Trumbo, Sr. is not. Most of the plays require up and down lighting, modern dress and only a single hand prop. This year, KPW is paying honoraria to the playwrights; future years may find them getting royalties.

Hopefully, a result of the new KNPS is that more Kentucky playwrights will be introduced to more theatre audiences, who will desire more new plays. Only if that happens can the theatre canon grow to provide more opportunities for our talented playwrights. Appetizer plays are a way of achieving that result.

William H. McCann, Jr. is a member of the Dramatists Guild, founder and former producer of the Kentucky New Play Series. His newest full-length play, Boats Against the Current, premiered on February 28 at Flashback Theater, Somerset, KY for eight performances. He lives in Winchester.

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