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Backing our plays


Permit me to introduce Chapel Hill playwright Taylor Howard. Once regional artistic directors know he's here, I doubt you'll have the chance to forget the name.

Howard took top honors at one of two surprisingly fun--and surprisingly well-attended--experiments in public play gestation last week, both at Carrboro's ArtsCenter.

In after-show sessions, The PlayFactory, an ongoing project of Scott Pardue's New World Stage, called on audiences to roll up their sleeves and help birth Cherryl Floyd-Miller's Settling Sophia, a promising--but still problematic--drama about race in the South.

Across the way, well over 100 patrons placed their bets on 14 regional playwrights in the area's first-ever "Slam It" in Earl Wynn Theater. This theatrical variation on the poetry slam phenomenon had the entire audience voting on three-minute scenes, some from previous plays or works in progress, others written specifically for the evening. The audience's instant theater reviews for each scene--on a scale of 1 to 5--were then tabulated to determine which playwrights went on to extra rounds.

John Hall Middlesworth, Scott Ross, David Roth and Annie Taft all made the finals with Mr. Howard. If regional artistic directors aren't already familiar with these names, I strongly suggest they get familiar with them--and others that could easily have made the cut, like Iris Hall, Lynn Veitch Sadler, Ann Marie Oliva and Nathan Ross Freeman.

But the newcomer walked off with top honors--and with good reason. In his opening act, 24-Hour Donut, two guys in their 30s dissect, in exquisite detail, a busted pass one made at a supermarket checkout girl:

Chet: "I spent like an hour loading the fucking basket!"

Jeffrey: "Hey ... take it easy ..."

Chet: "Settin' the order ... colors ... textures ... I'm workin' with budget considerations here ... "

Jeffrey: "It's okay."

Chet: "Gotta make sure the cart doesn't have that retard wheel ... shuddering on the linoleum ... "

(a beat)

Jeffrey: "You lost the painting."

Chet: "I totally lost the painting."

Then Looking for Grace closed the deal with a confrontation between a woman and a guy who's been driving cross-country for five days. Both wind up in the same hotel room, in the middle of a hurricane.

Strong characters, screwball situations, and scenes that just as easily could veer toward the comic or the tragic: Given the splash he made, something tells me this won't be the last we hear from Taylor Howard.

Nor should it be the last play slam we see. It was undeniable on Saturday night: A strong community of playwrights is making work we should be seeing a lot more frequently than twice-a-year competitions like this.

At least half of the slam's participants would be viable candidates for the PlayFactory process we saw unfold in the West End space. After closing Settling Sophia, Bull City Players artistic director Anthony Caporale focused the audience's attention with questions on specific elements of the production--and then let them go to work.

And work they did: grappling with the issues of the play, trying to help the playwright hone the work's development. Having done the same work myself for over nine years, I was impressed by the difficulty of the task and the audience's analytical accomplishment.

And the thing was, they were having a good time doing it: matching wits with the playwright, working the material and meaning, offering their best to help a work.

At the PlayFactory and the Play Slam, audiences received a workout they rarely get in regional theater. On both nights, they were up for the challenge. In those rooms I heard some of most animated discussion I have heard in a theater in years, enough to conclude that both don't only help authors--they give something important to actors and community audiences as well.

There are showcases, and then there's the Enloe Dance Benefit Concert, a yearly invitational where the region's professional modern dance community convenes at the start of the season to aid the region's premiere public school modern dance program. Traditionally, the combination of fresh samples from seasoned choreographers and first fruits from new companies has given regional dancegoers the first clues of the season about what's in store for modern dance in the coming year.

This year's edition is no exception. We'll finally see the first work from the Postcards Project, Carol Kyles Finley's Cut: The Surgeon's Solo, and Betsy Ward-Hutchinson's new solo, Mermaids Don't Need Shoes. Susan Quinn's valedictory, Wake Up Call, precedes her departure to New York. And no one should miss Choreo Collective's improbable masterpiece The Firm Believer, a work choreographed by local teacher--and non-dancer--Kathy Colville. See you there. EndBlock

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