Numbers help define the scope of the Maine Playwrights Festival: six plays by six Maine playwrights featuring two dozen performers over eight nights in Portland and Bangor. But the true scope of the festival, which opens Thursday in Portland, can be measured in its influence.
When the festival began in 2001, playwrights in Maine had few avenues for getting their scripts produced. Now, theater companies across Portland and Maine encourage writers and compete to produce Maine’s best new plays. Routinely, theater companies large and small include new plays by Maine writers in their season lineups.
Dan Burson, the festival’s artistic director, is proud of the festival’s role in spurring that creative activity. It has produced more than 150 original plays by dozens of playwrights.
“When the festival began in the early 2000s, there was very little new-play development happening in southern Maine and few opportunities for playwrights,” Burson said. “We became one of the earliest organizations to encourage and showcase the work of local writers, and many playwrights got their start by submitting scripts to us. It’s been a great, accessible opportunity for writers to submit work, get some feedback and, if their play is selected, to have the opportunity to see their work on its feet. That is invaluable to writers developing their craft.”
This year’s festival features six plays, which are between 8 and 30 minutes long. All will be fully staged, though with minimal sets, and all will be performed each night. Performances will last about two hours, with intermission. This year’s playwrights are Eddie Adelman, Travis G. Baker, Danie Connolly, Kevin O’Leary, Thomas Spurr and David Susman. Michael Kimball is this year’s playwright in residence, and the festival will produce a staged reading of his full-length play, “Patience Boston,” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 29, in the Studio Theatre at Portland Stage.
The black box at Portland Stage is home to most performances. The festival shifts to the Penobscot Theatre Company for the final performance on May 5, the third year Bangor has hosted a performance.
In previous years, the festival selected a dozen plays for production. At Burson’s helm, the festival cut that number in half to give more attention to and present more complete productions of each. In addition to staging the six plays, the festival offers readings of plays that didn’t make the final cut, as well as a showcase of plays by high school playwrights. Burson and Maine playwright Callie Kimball worked with students from Bonny Eagle High School in Standish and Casco Bay High School in Portland on original scripts. The high school scripts will be performed at 3 p.m. Saturday at Portland Stage.
The festival operates under the umbrella of South Portland-based Acorn Productions, which also produces the Naked Shakespeare series and other programs. While the festival has grown and expanded in recent years, it remains a lean operation with an annual budget of $13,000, all of which comes from ticket sales, grants and donations.
“It’s hard to pay for it,” Burson said. “We’re a small organization with no full-time staff in a difficult funding environment. But it’s worth going out there and hunting for the support.”
There’s a lot of variety in this year’s scripts. In “O’Hare – Gate 44” by Adelman, two former high school sweethearts meet by accident many years later and find meaning. Spurr tells the story of divorced parents who find a way to cope and mourn together while cleaning out the room of their recently deceased daughter. O’Leary wrote about confronting and coming to terms with the past in “Gloria Anderson,” and Baker explores the realm of artificial intelligence in “The Store.” Susman envisions the return of Willy Loman, and Danie Connolly writes about a bank robber who chose the wrong teller to stick up.
Burson said the festival receives between 45 and 65 submissions each year. A committee of four judges them blindly, not knowing the names or experiences of the writers.
O’Leary said he appreciates the festival because of the attention it brings to Maine playwrights.
“This is a great state. We have great artists, we have great musicians and we have great authors – novelists and poets and playwrights,” he said. “Our voices are just as relevant as San Francisco voices or Montreal voices.”
IN PORTLAND: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. May 2-4 at Studio Theater at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave.
IN BANGOR: 7 p.m. May 5 at the Penobscot Theatre Company’s education space, 51 Main St.
TICKETS & INFO: $20 adults, $18 seniors and students; acorn-productions.org
ALSO: A staged reading of plawright-in-residence Michael Kimball’s ‘Patience Boston” will be at 7 p.m. Monday, April 29, at studio theater at Portland Stage. Admission is pay-what-you-can.