samuel french off off broadway short play festival: a big little festival

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[article originally published in HowlRound, October 21, 2014.]

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Festival kick-off reception. Photo provided by Samuel French.

There are many theater festivals and conferences that select participants and winners carefully behind closed doors. Some of these programs have public performances, and some have readings only for theater insiders and participants after the selection has occurred. The Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival provides something different — a blend of private reading and ranking that continues into a public vetting stage with the prize of publication. With a bit of elimination round talent competition flavor, finalist playwrights from around the country bring a production of their play to New York City for juried performances that serve as the final stage of the selection process.

Winners from recent years include Bekah Brunstetter and Sheila Callaghan (who won in 2007 and were published in 2008) and Daniel Perle (a winner in 2011 and published in 2012). This year’s crop of winners includes Kelly Younger, whose play Mandate will be published in the 39th series volume in 2015. From new voices to established professionals, everyone has a shot on this Festival stage.

Months of preparation precede the jam-packed days of the 39th edition of the “OOB” (pronounce it affectionately, as the Sam French staff members do) five days of performances. This year’s eight “performance sessions” presented thirty semi-finalist contenders (selected from 1,380 submissions), two “finals sessions” and one “winners showcase” — the victory lap for this year’s six short plays that jumped all the hurdles.

I attended two evenings of “performance sessions,” the one-day of “finals,” and the final deliberations among Samuel French staff to determine the six playwrights to be published in the Samuel French OOB Festival: Off Off Broadway Festival Plays 39th Series. I also spent several hours spread over several days with the Festival Co-Artistic Directors Amy Rose Marsh and Casey McLain, who work together at Samuel French — Marsh as Literary Manager and McLain as Operations Manager — and at Concrete Temple Theatre, where Marsh covers Outreach and Dramaturgy and McLain is Lighting Designer and Stage Manager.

More people need to know about this fabulous tradition that even the organizers say isn’t for every playwright.

Selection Rules and Process
Plays and playwrights have to be game, and to have the right attributes. You can’t already be a Samuel French playwright, but you can have done past Festivals. The play has to be “mostly in English” but there are growing exceptions to this—a play in this year’s Festival has extended sequences in Japanese, for example, with no translation. Plays have to be thirty minutes or under, and past winners have been as short as six minutes. There are no casting or content restrictions and few form restrictions—play or musical, it’s all fair game, though it must work in a barebones production. “If production values are paramount to your work,” notes Marsh, “and you’re someone that works in projection or visual theater, the Festival is probably not your jam.” What’s most essential, adds McLain, is “figuring out who you are as a playwright and where you want to go before you start to submit.”

The submissions begin in late December or early January each year, announced with a posting on the Sam French website. An organization (say a school or an acting studio) can submit up to fifteen short plays, and each individual playwright can submit up to three. The submission period ends in March; the in-house Festival staff takes over reading, processing, and assigning scores. Marsh utilizes much of the Samuel French staff, former interns, and dramaturgs she knows in this process. McLain reflects, “It’s literally us reading from January to May, in all of our off time.” Every submission is read at least twice, leading for some to a third read (this year 400) by a festival executive committee. The sixty plays that ended up in the final decision room were cut to thirty finalists that were curated as the four evening Festival competitions. This year eleven plays made the “finals sessions,” and six moved on to publication.

Producing the Festival
For the first twenty years of the festival, Samuel French used contractors to produce the days of public performance, and took it in-house in 2008 when they realized that they had the internal capacity to produce. “We’ve been able to make it an efficient extension of our jobs,” Marsh remarked.

The current Co-Artistic Directors evolved into their roles. Marsh, for example, started as a Literary Associate logging plays, then worked on the Festival website—coordinating interviews and blog posts. This work evolved into marketing and public relations, returning to the literary end of things when the office brought in a marketing person to take over those responsibilities. She noted: “We obviously have evolved with it, we really care about it.”

Archiving the Festival process is important to Marsh, who references 13P, another self-producing playwright initiative that presented its final production in 2012), and built a robust archive of all thirteen plays produced during their tenure. The Festival’s web site includes a kind of 13P-like OOB process archive for the final thirty plays selected each year.

Production Values: The Real Off Broadway Experience
One important thing that strikes the Festival visitor on any of the finalist competition evenings is that these events are much more than staged readings, and somewhat less than full productions. Which begs the question: What are rules?

The playwright can self-produce or they can work with an organization to assist them. Samuel French acts as the host: providing the venue, the marketing, support, and lights. McLain, a professional stage manager, clarifies: “The production rules are you are only going to get seven different light looks, there’s no color, that’s all—bare minimum.”

The playwrights are provided with an array of stock furniture and if they want to add to it, they have to obtain McLain’s permission.

Samuel French is technically the producing organization, but the playwright is the stage manager contact for the show. They have to pay late fees or fines; they’re in charge of making sure they register their actors. But we provide the liability insurance that’s needed, and we make sure that it’s 99 seats, and we’re in compliance with the $18 tickets and all of that stuff.

The playwrights gain producing experience as part of their play competition experience—and personal knowledge of the New York City Showcase Code. To Marsh, this is another benefit of their Festival program. “There is a role in the future for Samuel French to help self producers find fiscal sponsorship; playwrights really have to learn that end of their business.” McLain underscored this element. “The thing Amy and I strive for is to give people the real Off-Broadway experience.” Marsh adds: “We really try to get them to think about creating theater as an entrepreneurial and business endeavor.. It’s about how to we get a show together and put it up, even if it’s one time. I think that’s also why people get so invested in their results. It’s not just because it’s a play, it’s because they found the actors and they put it together,” She notes of the OOB playwrights, “They have to be the Artistic Director of their own show—some playwrights are very hands off and put it up last minute, while others do fundraisers for months and rehearse for weeks.” McLain added, “We notify the selected playwrights in early May. I know that most groups don’t start rehearsal until July.”

The question of which plays happen when on the four scheduled finalist nights is taken care of by McLain—the playwrights submit a form with production requirements and days of availability, and McLain curates accordingly, balancing technical needs, as well as genre, cast size, and flow of each performance session.

The Competition Judging: Creating Disappointment by Design
Each night of the curated Festival shows has a variable number of plays that move on to the final Saturday sessions based on the opinions and consensus of each night’s guest trio of judges. The nightly varying judging team decide, with Samuel French staff input, which of the seven or eight plays proceed to Saturday’s “finals session” that is judged by Samuel French staff. The end result is a six winning plays that have an additional performance on Sunday in the “winners showcase” and are published in next edition of the annual series Off Off Broadway Festival Plays, usually released the following calendar year. Individual plays that make the final six will be performed three times, plays that reach the finals are performed twice, and the balance of plays are performed for the paying and invited audience only once.

The final performances on Saturday allows for the final vetting of plays that advanced through the guest judging process. March reflects that “it is like live literary management,” allowing for a performed review of the final contenders for both a playwrights competition and the entries in a publication. Marsh remarked, “It’s transparency about the process to the extreme—we’re not even masking it. We create disappointment by design.”

The Books: Dramaturgy on the Page After Dramaturgy on the Stage
The publication of the book is an offshoot of the Festival competition. According to Marsh, “Putting a book together is so much different than the actual judging during the week—“the judging is the hardest thing for me because if you get to this point, there’s something great about the play.” At the same time, she relishes being able to see the book, live during the final Sunday “Winners’ Showcase” performance. “This is our book in performance.”

Marsh is working on a trade anthology to commemorate the forty years of the Festival, which will be produced in additional to the 40th annual set of plays that will be selected in next year’s festival and published the following year. She wasn’t present for the first thirty years of Festival plays so for those she can only imagine the plays in performance (what dramaturgs do all the time), and recall her last ten years of Festivals. “It’s hard because you don’t get to see them again, so I have to remember what they were like, how they worked together.”

It’s Little and Big at the Same Time: Bring Your “A Game” and Explore Your Work On Stage
Marsh and McLain have visions for the Festival. “I’d like for it to be as recognized as Humana,” Marsh offers. “I feel like this is a bit of a stepchild. People know about it but they don’t really know what it is.” McLain recalls discussions about how to market the Festival. “It’s a cool competition which asks a playwright to bring your A Game, bring your actors, but don’t go overboard.”

Marsh summarizes the Festival as “embracing the successes and failures of grassroots theater.” She continues,

So much of the Festival is about a process, the page to kind of stage—it’s a competition that celebrates process. It’s a real play lover’s festival. We’re a company where our primary customer base is the play loving community. It’s a festival for people that embrace the high arts.

McLain is unapologetic about the element of competition in the Festival. “I want to see everybody do the best that they can, but at the same time it is a competition—if the script doesn’t do well, then maybe that’s not the script for us.” Yet she seeks to ensure that the Festival is a showcase for everyone who participates. “Even if a writer doesn’t move on, or doesn’t win, people are seeing their work and talking about it.” For McLain, size doesn’t matter but impact does. “It’s big and it’s small at the same time. It’s not Fringe, it’s not one of the big ones, but it’s important and from one of the largest publishers in our niche market.” Marsh sees the Festival moving forward as “the premier forum for new writers to explore their work on stage.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 21, 2014)

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