New York – Upstate by Donna Hoke
In January 2016, I held an event at the Burchfield Penney Art Center that showcased nine readings of ten-minute plays inspired by the work of Charles Burchfield. The plays were chosen blindly by three judges—not me!—from among more than 40 submissions. They played to a packed house on a Second Friday event—we actually had to turn people away—and the playwrights were so thrilled with the results that they asked me to repeat the event. Because my primary goal had been to get playwrights in the region to submit a play (in the hopes that they would continue to do so beyond our region, something I’m happy to say is happening more now than ever), and also because this particular event ultimately only provided opportunity to those nine chosen playwrights, I declined to repeat it, but encouraged them to do so, i.e. I hoped I’d taught them how to fish.
It worked. There were short play series scheduled around the election and Halloween, but it was Dramatists Guild member James Marzo who took the Burchfield concept, and expanded to other Buffalo institutions. In October 2017, a festival of readings at the Buffalo History Museum featured plays prompted by artifacts selected by museum staff. And in April 2018, Buffalo Never Fails was presented at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library; plays were prompted by three artifacts in the WWI Buffalo Never Fails exhibit on display through January 2020. Both events called for plays from playwrights throughout the WNY region. Next up: Buffalo Museum of Science, where staff are currently choosing objects to inspire playwrights for a festival in October. Like the previous two events, this one will call for plays from throughout the region, and venue staff will read and select the final plays.
“The enthusiasm from the playwrights and hosts of each event has been encouraging,” says Marzo. “The actors also seem pleased to perform in these venues. It gives a playwright the chance to stretch creative muscles and write about something that they [previously] knew very little about. I was pleased with the different writing styles projected in this past festival, and how each playwright interpreted their artifact for their dramatic piece.”
For the hosting institutions, the festivals allow them to spotlight a particular exhibit, which gives it another dimension. They help by printing programs, and publicizing the event, including through newsletters and email. “At every venue, the coordinator of the event has expressed great satisfaction in having their institution host the festival,” says Marzo. “When we finish, someone usually approaches a playwright and tells them how their play has resonated with them and their personal experiences. It’s rewarding to know that your piece has touched someone in a meaningful way.”
With venues expressing interest in repeating the event in the future, Marzo intends to keep this program going, and hopes that, as it continues, more playwrights will be encouraged to submit their work. “So far, I am encouraged,” he says. “The venues have been interesting, and the artifacts or subject matter have been inspirational. I believe we can prevail and continue to grow. If a theater would be willing to sponsor an event or workshop, I would be open to exploring a way to expand this program with them. Playwrights and actors appreciate the opportunity to showcase their talents; it’s a win for everyone. I’ll keep at it until playwrights lose interest or we run out of venues.”
(If you’re interested in submitting to the science museum event, contact me and I will put you in touch with James Marzo.)