High energy buzzed in the rehearsal room at South Coast Repertory in early spring 2020. Actors were in rehearsals for two new productions that would be featured during the theatre’s Pacific Playwrights Festival—a nationally renowned, annual showcase of new works. Five play readings were also scheduled for PPF. Then came COVID-19 and, with the theatre shuttered, the festival took the year off. Now in 2021, PPF returns between April and June with five professionally filmed, staged readings of new works.
View the 2021 PPF Lineup
New Play Development: The Lab@SCR
When David Ivers took the helm as artistic director, he dove into learning and assessing everything he could about how SCR ‘makes theatre.’ Along with that, he embarked on a visioning process with Managing Director Paula Tomei—what does the future look like for the Tony Award-winning theatre?
This is how The Lab@SCR was born—an infrastructure that houses the theatre’s existing and new programs for play development—including the creation of new American musicals, commissions for playwrights at various stages of their careers, the Pinnacle Commission (at $60,000, it’s one of the largest in the nation) along with playwright residences, workshops, readings and more.
Scott Hylands, K Callen and Jordan Charney in April Snow Romulus Linney (1983).
“This was a huge expansion and deepening of our commitment to new works,” says Ivers. “It goes directly to how we support playwrights, activate our new work and aim for productions at SCR and beyond. And it’s a natural progression to build on the vision of our founders.”
New play development has been part of the theatre’s DNA for nearly 40 years. SCR produced its first commissioned work in 1983: April Snow, by Obie Award-winning playwright Romulus Linney. Five years later, the theatre received a 1988 Tony Award that recognized the company’s outstanding contributions to the American Theatre through new play support and development and what The New York Times would later call SCR’s national role as an “incubator of major talent.”
A Commission Is…
When SCR commissions a new play, the company provides money up front for a work that has not yet been written. Commissions are a way to invest in writers and their process and to give them the means and time to concentrate on the next play they want to write. While a commission offers needed financial support, just as important, it serves as a vote of confidence in a writer’s talent and ability.
Mike Donahue, who will direct this year’s reading of Park-e Laleh by Shayan Lotfi, talks about developing a new play in collaborative terms: a community that comes together around a playwright’s new work—including actors, dramaturgs and designers—and the role that each person plays.
“We all approach it from a particular point of view to help nudge a play along on its journey,” he explains. The different vantage points include: What is the story and how will it be told? What’s the vision of the world of the play and how do things operate in that world? Who are the people in the play and how are they changing each other? What are they doing from moment to moment?
“The playwright, of course, is at the center of all of that, making the crucial decisions about how to respond to all of the feedback,” Donahue says.
Playwright Lotfi was finding pathways and options for emerging writers getting narrower. Until he connected with SCR and received an Elizabeth George Emerging Writers Commission. His script, Park-e Laleh, is one of five digital readings at PPF this year.
“It’s a testament to the theatre that all of their support to me was provided based on their belief in the piece itself—they had never met me or heard of me before reading the script and awarding me a commission,” Lotfi says. “Having a large, influential and nationally significant institution like SCR put their time, resources and belief into early career playwrights and new plays is an essential bulwark against the forces that make playwriting an increasingly difficult proposition.”
To Champion New Musicals
Craig Lucas’s play Prelude to a Kiss was commissioned, developed and premiered by SCR in 1988 and later went on to be a major feature film.
“South Coast Repertory is the premier crucible for new plays in America—and it has been for decades,” Lucas says. “The theatre’s commitment to commissioning, developing and producing new American plays continues to be a beacon to all of us who make new work. I do not know of another theatre that comes close to the fecundity of new writing and the clarity and commitment of SCR.” The theatre has been in development for a musical version of Lucas’ Prelude.
Lyricist Sean Hartley, John Glore (obstructed), playwright Craig Lucas and Artistic Director David Ivers in rehersal for the 2019 Pacific Playwrights Festival concert-reading of Prelude to a Kiss.
Ivers is an unabashed fan of musicals and included the development of new American musicals as a priority for The Lab@SCR. More complex to develop than a play, musicals involve the book writer, the lyricist and the composer. Where a play may develop within a year, the development of a musical may take several years.
“Musicals deal with a scope and theatricality that is unique to them,” Ivers says. “But, like plays, musicals also try to tackle big issues and we talk about how character and story are embedded, clarified and magnified in the book, but also how to capitalize on that in the score.”
A concert-reading of Harold & Lillian, a new musical with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis (and based on the documentary film by Daniel Raim) is set for PPF this year. Resources provided through The Lab@SCR have given the work additional days of rehearsal, workshops and more ahead of the festival. While not an SCR commission, the new musical is benefiting from the company’s fine-tuned approach.
It’s Worth the Risk
Giovanni Adams and Chauntae Pink in the world premiere of Little Black Shadows by Kemp Powers (2018).
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Soul, One Night in Miami) and playwright Kemp Powers says he had no idea how much support SCR would pour into his play Little Black Shadows, which was developed and premiered here in 2018.
“Developing a new play is a time of extreme insecurity and stress for a playwright—well, this one, at least,” Powers says. “The theatre’s help blew away my expectations of what could be accomplished on a regional stage. And, most importantly, SCR expressed a true desire to have an ongoing relationship with me as an artist and commissioned me to write another new piece of my own conception.”
But it’s not without risk.
“The higher or deeper that a playwright aims, the greater the element of risk,” says Amy Freed, whose commissioned works for SCR include SHREW! (2018) and The Beard of Avon (2001). “SCR understands this and doesn’t flinch from it. It’s truly one of the great theatres in the country.”
For SCR, the reward comes from the risk. New works are written for today’s audiences and speak to the world we live in: some plays celebrate contemporary society, others challenge it; some are set in another time or place, but are still connected to the modern experience; and some touch on universal themes, while others illuminate little-known issues. No matter their content, new plays are reflections of today.
“And that’s one of the greatest things about developing new work,” says Ivers. “We have no idea where it’s going to lead.”
To date, the company has given 340 commissions to 241 artists and with each new play, the writer contributes to the art form and helps shape the future of American theatre. Over the years, SCR has championed, developed and premiered plays by luminaries such as David Henry Hwang, Lucas Hnath, Lauren Yee, Lynn Nottage, Julia Cho, Richard Greenberg and Lauren Gunderson, all of whom have written important American plays that will no doubt leave a lasting legacy.
“We are looking for the play we don’t know we’re looking for until we find it,” says John Glore, associate artistic director and PPF co-director. “We want to be surprised in a way that takes our breath away—and that’s something we can’t anticipate until we encounter it.”
Brooke Ishibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui, Raymond Lee and Abraham Lee in the world premiere of Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee (2018).
Lauren Yee explored genocide through her SCR CrossRoads commission—Cambodian Rock Band. She came to SCR to explore Orange County and write about what she found. She started with a residency that led her just outside of OC to Long Beach and the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia—and survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Cambodian Rock Band was developed and premiered at SCR in 2018.
“My new-play experience at SCR changed how I approach the playwriting process,” she says. “It focused me more on observation, community-building and process.”
Cambodian Rock Band’s journey—having numerous other productions across the country, earning rave reviews, winning prizes, moving to New York and elsewhere—is significant for the theatre because there’s an aspect of pride, of reputation and the possibility of taking the world by storm.
Playwright Octavio Solis chuckles as he looks back on his early years as a writer. His commissions include Cloudlands and La Posada Magíca and he’s currently working on a new commission for SCR.
“I thought that you simply wrote the play, put it on stage and made adjustments along the way,” he says. “But SCR’s coterie of dramaturgs and the finely-honed development process demonstrated how to put a new play through its paces—like a deep-tissue development process. Their love for new work gave me the confidence to revise my plays with the precision of a surgeon.”
For Ivers, the scientific definition of a laboratory fits The Lab@SCR perfectly: a place for providing opportunities for experimentation, observation or practice in a field of study.
“That’s exactly what we are trying to do when we develop new works,” he says.
SCR’s distinctive work in new play development has consistently earned praise from writers.
Raymond Lee and Sandra Oh in the world premiere of Office Hour by Julia Cho (2016).
Julia Cho, whose works have been developed at SCR over more than two decades—including, most recently, Office Hour—has great respect for the theatre’s approach to developing plays.
“When I was just starting as a writer, SCR treated me almost exactly as they do now that I’m a mid-career playwright: always with respect, generosity and a complete lack of agenda,” she says. “What amazes me is that I’m fairly sure this is the kind of relationship they have with all their writers, not just me. The breadth of the theatre’s engagement with writers, and the amount of new work they engender as a result, is truly unique.”
Which is music to Ivers’ ears.
“I hope we are always moving the goal posts about what makes an ‘SCR’ play or musical,” he says. “Curiosity, adventure, boldness and craft guide our development process as we wrap our arms around a variety of diverse and imaginative artists.”
Learn More About PPF