Playwrights Impress at FutureFest Competition

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Sugarhill FutureFest
The cast of Linda Ramsay-Detherage's Sugarhill Photo by Art Fabian

Being unique is great, of course, but every once in a while something unique comes along that a fellow wishes weren’t so unique. A fellow might wish there were others like it.

Sugarhill FutureFest
The cast of 2014 FutureFest winner
Linda Ramsay-Detherage’s Sugarhill
Photo by Art Fabian

I’m talking about the all-one-word FutureFest, an annual event run at the Dayton Playhouse, the Ohio community theater. It’s the only spot in the land where every July volunteers hold a new play contest that gives six playwrights a chance to see their work before an audience and gives one of them a $1000 prize for the winning play and the others $100 checks.

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This year’s FutureFest 2014 check went to Linda Ramsay-Detherage for Sugarhill, a family drama set in a fictional Louisiana town on the eve of the United States’ entrance into World War II.

Here’s how it works: Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31, playwrights are invited to submit manuscripts that reading committees assess through the winter. A final committee narrows the selection to six in March and alerts those tapped to a paid Dayton summer trip.

At that point directors and casts are chosen and rehearsals begin—tech crews also get to work—for the July presentations. Over a 48-hour period starting on a Friday night and concluding early that Sunday evening, three of the plays receive full productions and three are given staged readings. Watching the six (non-Equity, of course) offerings with the Dayton audience in an auditorium seating approximately 180, are five judges—designated somewhat grandly as “adjudicators.”

I know all this because for perhaps 20 years of the festival’s duration, I’ve been one of them. This year the others were regulars Helen Sneed, Eleanore Speert, Faye Sholiton and Roger Danforth. All of us have been theater-wizened one way or another over sufficient time with Sholiton a former FutureFest winner.

We’re there not only to look at the plays and, having already read the scripts and ranked them preliminarily, to vote on the best one in our estimation. We also head to the stage after each production’s fade-out and discuss the pros and cons of what we’ve just seen. We do that in chairs positioned stage right, while sitting center stage are the playwright under scrutiny and current festival chairperson Brian Sharp. The director and cast of the play are perched, usually smiling, stage left. Executive director Fran Pesch isn’t on stage then, but ubiquitous throughout.

I’m rhapsodic about FutureFest, which was founded 24 years ago by locals John Riley and Dodie Lockwood, for the simple reason that it’s such a fine affair. Simply witnessing a community so involved in theater and its future that it wants to increase theater annals is enough to get me excited—especially when the theater is situated within the beautifully tended Wegerzyn Gardens. Walking around them during intermissions is its own natural high.

Getting more specific about FutureFest specifics is something of a challenge. It’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ve got my starting point. It’s with the actors and directors that fetch up for these plays—many of whom appear as well in the Dayton Playhouse’s fall-winter-spring schedule. (This coming season it includes adjudicator Sneed’s first-rate comedy drama Fix Me, Jesus.)

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The high level of acting and direction throughout FutureFest from one year to the next puts a reviewer on notice that not all the best practitioners of these crafts head towards New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. There are people here who might have done well in any bigger mecca but who for one reason or another have attached themselves to community theaters in smaller towns. Dayton directors like Jim Lockwood or Saul Caplan, actors like Cheryl Mellen, Jennifer Lockwood or Annie Pesch turn in finished work that in, for instance, Manhattan would be earning them award nominations.

The Dayton Playhouse audience does include participants in the shows, but there are others who are nothing more nor less than devoted patrons. The result is that while play-going is foremost for them, socializing is a good part of the jovial proceedings. By now regulars know each other, though this year, and with no particular explanation, there seemed to be an unusual number of first-timers. (Tickets for the entire weekend were $95 this year; single-performances tickets, $18.)

It’s a pity to say that in one way the FutureFest audiences mirror theater audiences in too many places. They’re aging. Also, few African-Americans attend. The exceptions appear to be family and friends of black cast members.

And what of the plays—something like 150 to 400 plays submitted from year to year? Of about 140-plus presented for audiences and adjudicators alike to date, only one has gone on to national prominence: Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, which won in 2005 and subsequently became George Clooney’s on-screen Ides of March.

To my way of loose thinking, the plays generally range from very good to not so very good. As an example of the very good, The Paymaster by M. J. Feely, who has been a FutureFest selectee on several occasions, was so effective this year that I’ve done something I’ve never done before. I’ve recommended that a Manhattan not-for-profit take a look at it. I’d also say that Ramsay-Detherage’s Sugarhill would look on an Off-Broadway stage as good as, or better than, many of the plays I saw in New York this past year.

I can’t account, however, for the not-so-very-good scripts. Few of the submitting playwrights seem to be aware of current playwriting trends. (Not that following trends and hewing to them is an unmitigated positive.) For example, a hefty percentage of new plays produced in New York these days are 90 minutes long or less, whereas almost everything Dayton readers select are written in two acts. Which would be fine, but too often they’re two-act plays with not sufficiently more to recommend them for further productions.

Why they’ve been selected over other possibly more intriguing scripts is something we judges have no way of assessing. We don’t know what criteria the readers are employing, individually or collectively, although it’s been apparent the past few years that contemporary vernacular, patently an issue for quite some time, is now more readily acceptable. Nor do we know whether FutureFest submission requests are disseminated widely enough.

Next year is FutureFest 2015. If certain financial problems an enterprise like this one inevitably encounters are surmounted (about which the adjudicators are only intermittently informed), it’ll be the 25th anniversary–a happy 25th birthday. Too bad there haven’t been other births like it.