A Stonecoaster Sits in on the Play Development Process at Portland Stage’s Little Festival of the Unexpected

By Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 4th semester student

Stonecoast’s unique flexibility allowed me to design a multi-faceted playwriting plan for my 4th semester. My start in the playwriting field occurred a year earlier in Mike Kimball’s invaluable dialogue workshop. To build on what I learned there, I contacted Portland Stage this winter to ask if I could shadow their Little Festival of the Unexpected, May 4-9th. The three plays that win this annual national playwriting competition receive funding for a full week of development. The playwright is there for the process and each play is assigned a director and a cast.

The Little Festival follows the same playwriting development process that is used in Mike Kimball’s dialogue workshop. The playwright hears his or her script being read and interpreted by a director and professional actors. It’s amazing to hear words leap from the page when given voice by an actor. One quickly learns where the script dialogue may need revisions.

While there is some resemblance to a Stonecoast writing workshop, play development is even more complex. Throughout the week, the director and actors have many questions about the play’s characters, their relationships, and how the story unfolds. A playwriting workshop goes goes far deeper then a standard writing workshop. It is more what you’d expect from a social worker diving into a complex interpersonal situation. Characters and plot are discussed and analyzed in astonishing detail. An actor wants to understand their character thoroughly and the depth of discussions sometimes results in characters changing in age, gender, interests, and relationships, and plots may change as well. The playwright sometimes adds and deletes entire pages, with the ultimate goal of strengthening and tightening the story.

Rather than an hour of feedback, as in a typical writing workshop, the playwright gets day-long, ongoing feedback throughout the week from the director and actors, along with final feedback at the week’s end from a live audience.

At this year’s Little Festival, I was able to sit in on the development of all three plays. Each play presented unique challenges and strengths. Each director had his or her own style, the actors had their unique character interpretations, and each team of actors had a particular group dynamic. The playwrights responded to feedback in different ways, handling script changes in keeping with their own writing styles. Toward the end of the week, each play was given two public readings and the playwright, director, and sometimes the actors, then held a “talk back” with the audience to discuss how the reading was received, and how the characters and plot came across.

True to its name, the festival is full of the “Unexpected”—as this is where I first met Tom Coash three years ago, not knowing that I’d soon enroll in Stonecoast and eventually ask him to be my mentor. Tom’s play Veils had been selected for the Little Festival and went on to win Portland Stage’s Clauder Competition and was fully staged in 2014. Veils also won Tom a M. Elizabeth Osborn Award from The American Theatre Critics.

This year’s Little Festival was just as unexpected, with one play including a koala bear played by an actor, another involving science, and a third with a plot that unfolded in such a way that one’s views of the characters kept shifting, kaleidoscope like, until the very end.

My experience at the Little Festival was a rare and elucidating experience, as I was the only one sitting in without a direct role in the productions. A sincere thanks to Portland Stage for their generosity in allowing this and special appreciation to Carmen-maria Mandley, the Education and Literary Manager at Portland Stage, and the playwrights, directors, actors, and interns who made this all possible.