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Old Pueblo Playwrights Unveils The Raw Talent Of Local Theatre In Six Class-Acts.

By Dave Irwin

JANUARY 11, 1999:  WRITING PLAYS IS different from other forms of writing," according to Rich Amada, "because it's no longer just the author and the audience. As a novelist, your words go directly to the audience and there's no one else there to interpret. As a playwright, you have to learn the skill of letting go to some extent, knowing that what you've written is the skeleton that others are going to build on for the total body of the performance. There's the director, the actors, the people creating scenic design and other effects. You have to give the other creative people an opportunity to invest their talent to it. If you become too attached, and think everything has to be exactly as you envisioned, you're going to be a very frustrated playwright."

Old Pueblo Playwrights' annual New Play Festival gives local authors the opportunity to present juried works in near final draft form, and then fine-tune their efforts through active audience feedback. The festival runs Thursday through Sunday, January 7 through 10, at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts. Now in its ninth year, the four-day event offers 13 works by six local playwrights. The format is staged readings; actors are rehearsed, but will perform with script in hand. The program will include short and full-length plays, radio plays, and a staged reading of a screenplay.

"It's a festival of works in progress," Amada advises.

A former broadcast journalist who is this year's OPP president, Amada took full advantage of the process last year. His Wimpley School for Wayward Girls was presented in workshop form at last year's festival. Using feedback from that, the comedy was tightened up and successfully produced last spring by Lost River Stageworks.

Selection of plays for the festival can be a grueling process for playwrights. To qualify, a work has to be read at least twice at OPP's regular Monday night meetings. That means it's subjected to a peer review that's polite but exacting. The members of OPP include people with many years of experience in writing, acting and production. They're not brutal, but they don't pull any punches, either. After qualifying, plays are submitted by the author for a vote by the members to select the best works for the festival.

Patti Cassidy, a former freelance journalist and librarian, began writing plays in 1992 and became a member of OPP a year later. "I remember the first time I walked in," she says. "Someone's play was being read that night, and I thought, 'My God, that's such a wonderful play.' And then the group starts saying, 'Well, this works, that doesn't seem to work,' and I'm wondering, 'How did you see all that?' Although I'd been writing and I was reasonably savvy to hearing things out, I wasn't used to this medium."

This year, Cassidy will see a version of her screenplay, Bruja, presented. The story is about a woman who goes mad while trying to seduce a man through magic.

"It's really honed my vision about the basic question of whose play is this and what is it about," she says of her OPP association. "Sometimes when you're writing a play you forget those basic questions and it shows in your work."

A number of local artists cite OPP as a valuable learning experience. Notable OPP alumni include Elaine Romero, Patrick Baliani, Howard Allen and Steve Barancik. Five of the approximately 20 current members have had one or more works produced outside of OPP in the past year.

This year, Amada will offer several short plays based on historical situations, such as Lady Godiva and Wisdom of Solomon. Joan Van Dyke explores local history and tradition with her full-length play, The Lights of Barrio Libre. In addition, her epic Wild and Wooly Tales of Pecos Bill will be part of the Saturday evening offerings, alongside Debra Billman Weitzell's Gumshoe, a campy 1940s-era detective story presented as a series of old-style radio plays, complete with sound effects.

The festival concludes Sunday with Jesse Greenberg's short play, Mountain; and newcomer Mark Hope's full-length Barter, about the unsavory alliance between a cop and a drug addict.

At the end of each play, audience members are invited to discuss the work with its author. "For us, the festival is part of the creative process," says Amada. "Playwrights get this information that lets them know where things are working and where they're not; where improvement needs to be made and where things are strong. It's the sort of thing you can't really gauge sitting at home in front of your typewriter or computer."


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