Phoenix Theatre Company’s Annual Festival of New American Theatre Brings Promising New Plays to Light

by Rebecca Rudnyk

As a lover of theatre, and everything that goes into developing a production, nothing quite compares to experiencing a new work as it comes together. From concept to paper. From paper to initial performance. From cold read to fully-staged. So the Phoenix Theatre Company’s Festival of New American Theatre is a dream come true event for anyone who loves the forum and appreciates the process.

The Festival is an annual highlight. An opportunity to experience early readings of new shows, as well as to participate in panels and talk-backs, witness improv, and bond with our local arts community. I wish I could have moved in for the duration and not missed a moment, an impossibility. But I was able to make it out at least once a week during the festival which ran on weekends from January 25th until February 9th. And each experience stood out in its own way.

Week 1 – Lunch at Audrey’s

Lunch at Audrey’s provided the opportunity to spend time with one of Hollywood’s most beloved Golden Age icons (and the most inspirational actress in my life), Audrey Hepburn. As Audrey awaits news of the viability of her pregnancy, after suffering with the loss several that have come before, she wrestles with the decision of playing a call girl in the 1961 film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She struggles with her husband’s disapproval of the role, and her own unease about how it could negatively impact her persona. Then Holly Golightly appears in the flesh, in all her unrefined glory, to slowly break down Audrey’s walls.

The show is conceptually sound, though unfinished. Admittedly, my strong affinity for Audrey likely kept me more engaged than someone who may come in without such a fascination for the show’s central character. The reading benefited from incredible performances by Jessie Jo Pauley as Audrey, and Pasha Yamotahari as all the male characters, with varying thick accents from Italian to German. Maria Amorocho also did a lovely job bringing Audrey’s chef and motherly figure to life.

This show has tremendous potential, but it needs some reworking, as shows usually do at this stage. Ultimately, I think it is Holly that needs the most attention. She should be charismatic, sultry and dangerous. She also needs to be accessible and likable. In her current state she is quite prickly, talking down to Audrey with a hardened superficiality; exuding very little humanity. If Holly can find her voice, in a manner that would speak to Audrey in the way intended, this show could bring Audrey back into the mainstream. Where she belongs. Always and forever.

Week 2 – The Anxiety Project

Before the show began, we were advised that it is ripe with triggers and given permission to step outside at any point, if need be. The power of this show absolutely requires such a preamble, and likely needs to keep it as it evolves into the mainstream, as I am confident it will. Generally, theatre audiences are encouraged to get to their seats well before the lights dim and wait until intermission to get up. The theatre is a safe space. Forever forgiving of vulnerability. A place to allow walls to fall down for the sake of communal catharsis. But sometimes, triggers blindside us with their power and we cannot recover without space to breathe. This show provides the opportunity to remove oneself if the experience becomes too intense. And for many, this permission will be necessary. Because it is powerful in a way that I have really never experienced.

The Anxiety Project has tremendous potential to make a lasting impact. To raise consciousness. To spark tough conversations and tear down taboos. To make us all more willing to share our experiences and and vulnerabilities. To say the things we might not otherwise. And that is the most important role art can play in our lives. Inspiring truth. Honesty. Acceptance.

In this new age of enlightenment; the ‘Me Too’ age where the encounters that once made us feel alone now bind us together and make us feel more attuned to each other. Being honest about shared experiences make us realize that we are not alone. That our shame is not shameful. That we all exist in a reality much more difficult than any of us wishes to admit. And some of us are not as brave as we pretend. So many suffer from mental illness, in varying degrees, and too often silently. This show does not sugarcoat anything. Its embrace of the reality and pervasiveness of the struggle is exceptionally powerful and it needs to be brought to the masses because it has the potential to do what art does best. To bring us together, empower us to speak our truth, and eliminate the superficial barriers that divide us.

In my opinion, of everything at the festival, The Anxiety Project is the most likely to find its way into the mainstream in the near future. Because, as intense as the experience is, it is built on stories that need to be told. Perhaps now more than ever.

Week 2 – The Way North

The most fundamental component of a truly great piece of theatre are the words. Everything else is built upon the words. And The Way North is one of the most beautifully written scripts that I have come upon in quite some time. Not clunky or expositional while dealing with intricate subject matter that has innate potential to lend itself to over-explanation, The Way North  presumes intelligence in its audience; a wildly refreshing and oft-unchosen path these days.

The story is widely and wholly relevant. A refugee seeking a new life. Unwelcome in America.  A law enforcement officer recoiling from an exceptionally unfortunate firearm-related event. A military veteran finding his way. The complex dynamic between mother and daughter. The moral and ethical dilemmas that shape us. Laws. Immigration. Politics. Empathy. Humanity.

The Way North is beautifully refined and, in my opinion, ready to move to the next level. The foundation is ultra sturdy, just waiting for visual components to add gravity to the impactful narrative. I hope this one gets picked up soon because I cannot wait to see it staged.

Week 3 – Conversation with Broadway Producer Ken Davenport

Not every story needs a wrap up. Capstones are alluring, but oft unnecessary. Yet sometimes, one appears unexpectedly and is perfectly fitting. Ken Davenport is a Broadway producer. And, from the start of the conversation, he was gracious enough to explain what that actually means: getting “people in a room.”

He told his story, the road that led him to Broadway, how throughout his life he found (and continues to find) his family in the theatre community. Amongst the many themes he covered, the major takeaways (mine at least) were that: (1) Theatre is a business. If we treat it as such (instead of a hobby or merely a passion), incredible things can happen; (2) The truly great works get done. Despite the challenges, relentlessness and persistence make sure the greatest works find their way to us; and (3) our community thrives and achieves success by genuinely hearing the audience. And we need to spend more time and energy, as a community, listening to each other and adapting based on feedback.

I cannot think of a more appropriate bow with which to wrap up this year’s incredible festival. A reminder that shows are all working toward a common goal. To open minds, share ideas, and make an impact on others.

The festival has concluded, and it left me with tremendous excitement of things yet to come – the shows that will now advance into their next evolutionary stage and blow my mind once again. Re-imagined. Staged. A more complete vision. I am anxious to see how these shows evolve, and I am already counting down the days to the next New Works Festival. I came to realize recently that it is perhaps my favorite theatre event of the entire year.

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For more info on Phoenix Theatre, including their current showtimes, visit their website.

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