Friday, November 4, 2011

Brand:NEW Play Fest Offers Chance to See What Could Be Tomorrow's Classics

Zabryna Guevara, Matthew Boston, Liza Colon-Zayás, Armando Riesco in a scene from Water By the Spoonful, the first play commissioned through the Aetna New Voices Fellowship to get a full production at Hartford Stage. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
By Lauren Yarger
Hundreds of submissions make their way to Hartford Stage's new play festival, Brand:NEW, every year where playwrights hope their work will have a chance for readings in front of audiences in a first step to becoming full productions somewhere.

The festival, now in its 14th year, is a "safe space to develop and a place for us to invest in playwrights we believe in," said the festival's line producer Hana Sharif, Hartford Stage's associate artistic director. The "we" includes the artistic director (Darko Tresnjak recently replaced Michael Wilson in the role), the staff and a number of readers who help weed through the submissions. They are looking for plays with heart, energy and dynamic characters, Sharif said.

The plays tend to be different, a little more edgy than those in the regular main stage series. It's sort of like a temporary black box setting in which to experiement a little, she said. This year's lineup includes readings of new works by Bekah Brunstetter, Marcus Gardley, Steven Levenson, Matthew Schneck and Sinan Unel (the schedule is included below).

"The five plays that we have chosen for this year's Brand:NEW festival look at history, family, and desire in exciting and unexpected ways," Tresnjak said. "It is a pleasure to bring these distinctive and provocative writers to Hartford Stage."
Hana Sharif
Many theaters are cutting back on reading series because of the economy. It's harder to take risks, but not every theater can boast of the kind of audience that Hartford Stage has developed over the years. Ticket prices usually are cheaper, but after all, what makes someone want to go see a play that isn't finished, without sets and costumes? (Readings usually involve actors standing or sitting with scripts music stands. Someone reads the stage directions and scene information.)
"There's something special about sitting in a room with actors at music stands teling you the story," Sharif said. There's a back-stage pass feel to being there, meeting and greeting with the authors and being part of the process. Audience feedback is solicited following the readings. While there are some producers attending looking for "the next hot thing," most of the audience is made up if savvy Hartford locals who have formed their own community with the annual festival. One past participant asked Sharif if Hartford Stage knew how lucky it was to have sich an educated and responsive audience.
New play development is part of the identity of this theater, though. There are a number of ways for new plays to get on stage:
  • The Aetna New Voices Fellowship awards a year-long residency, a commission and a stipend to a playwright of color. Hartford Stage provides three developmental opportunities and a chance to work with teen playwrights. This year, Quiara Alegria Hudes' Water By The Spoonful, is the first commission from the fellowship to get a full production at Hartford Stage. It runs through Nov. 13.
  • The Hartford Heritage Project looking at specific issues, events and characters from Connecticut.
  • Open submissions. Submissions from agents are accepted on a rolling basis. Hartford Stage also accepts unrepresented submissions by Connecticut authors.
This year's festival continues through this weekend. Here's the schedule:
Friday, November 4 * 7:30 p.m.
Hey Brother
By Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Maxwell Williams

Big brother Ben is a financial planner with an alpha-male attitude. Little brother Isaac is a graduate student in history, used to finishing in second place. When a mysterious young woman hunting for her own history comes into their lives, the love/ hate relationship between them is put to the test in this darkly funny adult drama.

Saturday, Nov. 5 at  2 pm
The Ping and the Pang
By Matthew Schneck
Directed by Jenn Thompson
When a man reluctantly visits a psychiatrist for the first time, he is subjected to a bizarre and aggressive new talk therapy technique. Is his doctor helping him to face his real issues? Or merely pushing him past the brink of sanity? The human psyche, the collective unconscious, and funny-tasting kool-aid combine in this outlandish and hilarious existentialist comedy.

Saturday, November 5 * 7:30 p.m.
The House That Will Not Stand
By Marcus Gardley
Directed by Hana S. Sharif

Set in 1836, against the backdrop of Faubourg Tremé in New Orleans, Marcus Gardley weaves a poetic tale of three sisters trapped beneath the oppressive thumb of their unyielding mother in a mandated six month period of mourning. As the summer heat intensifies, passion, jealousy, and fear collide in this explosive reimagining of Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba.

Sunday, November 6 * 11:00 a.m.
Playwrights' Panel

Meet the playwrights and engage with the creative process, discuss their inspiration, and learn about each individual journey to developing new work. Led by Jerry Patch, Director of Artistic Development at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Sunday, November 6 * 2:00 p.m.
Days of Rage
by Steven Levenson
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

1969. As the summer of love darkens into a long and bitter winter, a group of young activists makes plans for the Revolution from a dilapidated farmhouse in upstate New York. Jenny, a college dropout and a daughter of privilege, begins to have second thoughts about her role in the movement. As paranoia and political divisions threatening to tear the collective apart, Jenny must choose between following the dictates of her heart and a Revolution that may never come.

Pathetique by Sinan Unel, directed by Darko Tresnjak, was presented yesterday.

Key Dates and Information:
Readings will be held at Hartford Stage's Rehearsal Studio 2, 942 Main St., downtown Hartford (Residence Inn building).
Passes good for admission to all Brand:NEW events are $15. Admission to individual readings is $5; admission to the Playwrights' Panel is free. All readings offer general seating.
For reservations, directions, or more information, call the Hartford Stage box office at 860-527-5151 or visit

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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