Andy Knight, co-director of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, can describe South Coast Repertory’s renowned new-play showcase in five words: “A celebration of new plays.” For the 2021 digital festival—with five new works streaming in April, May and June—no two plays are alike: there’s a folk horror play, a family road trip story, a drama about starting over somewhere new, an intimate two-person play and a brand-new musical. Knight says there's a good chance that at least one of the plays may surprise you and you just may fall in love with one or more. In this Q&A, Knight talks about how PPF comes together and what to look for.
You’re co-director of PPF, along with Associate Artistic Director John Glore. What does this shared role entail?
We spearhead all aspects of the festival, from curating the plays to producing the readings themselves. This includes gathering plays to consider, reading the many, many, many plays we receive, sharing some of the most exciting plays with our colleagues to hear what they think of them and then—with Artistic Director David Ivers—selecting the five plays to feature in the festival. From there, a lot of planning and organizing happens over the course of four months as we prepare to present the staged readings to our audiences. The preparations we do are about making sure that the festival artists have everything they need to do their jobs—and that they have a good time doing their work—as well as making sure that audiences have a good time watching the readings. It’s all about the details—both big and small. But John and I definitely don’t do this alone. Everyone at SCR plays a crucial role in bringing PPF to fruition.
How do you select the plays?
We receive a lot of script submissions each year for PPF—around 230 plays. In addition, we often consider plays from our pool of commissions, these are plays that we’ve hired a playwright to write specifically with SCR in mind. Choosing the five festival plays is definitely the hard part because we really do receive so many wonderful plays; sometimes it feels almost impossible to narrow it down to such a small number, but it’s about finding the right plays for each year’s PPF. We get there with a lot of thought, by asking lots of questions and through many long discussions. It’s also important for us to think about the experience of the audience. Many audience members see all the readings, and we want to make that sure they’re seeing a variety of stories told in a variety of styles.
What’s the best part of the festival for you?
I think what I love most about PPF is the first day of rehearsal. There’s such an overwhelming sense of possibility when a creative team gathers for the first time. And the great thing about PPF is, with five different projects, I get to experience this feeling five times!
What’s different about PPF in 2021?
Traditionally, PPF usually includes full productions of two new plays, in addition to five staged readings. But in this pandemic year, we’re focused solely on the staged readings. Second, since it’s still not safe to gather in large groups indoors, we’re filming the readings and streaming them for audiences to enjoy at home. While there’s nothing quite like being together in the theatre together, we’re doing everything we can to make sure these filmed versions retain the excitement of a live theatrical experience. And here’s an upside for audiences: Each reading streams for a week and can be viewed anytime within that period. So if you want to watch the play at 7 p.m. or 7a.m. or even 2 a.m., you can!
What’s the biggest challenge to overcome for PPF?
Oh, it’s always time—there’s just not enough of it, and getting ready for the a normal-year festival weekend is always a mad rush. Of course, this year is a little bit different: there’s not a PPF “weekend” since we’re streaming the readings individually in April, May and June. But producing filmed, staged readings during a pandemic brings about a whole new set of challenges. There are far different logistics to consider—like keeping everyone involved with the festival healthy and safe and adapting from a format that works best for an in-person audience to a digital in-home experience. The only way to overcome these new challenges is to work through them. That is, stay diligent, thoughtful and flexible.
What do you look for in a play?
I don’t look for any one thing in a play. If I go into my read of a play looking for specific things, I’ll miss something—or everything. Instead, I try to stay open and assess a play on its own terms. After I’m done reading a play, it’s important for me to take the time to reflect and consider some overarching questions, such as, “What is the story this play is telling and how is it telling it?” Once I’ve established that, I can start considering how successfully it’s doing those things but, again, it’s important that I don’t do this with haste and jump to conclusions. I need to consider my own biases along the way and make sure I challenge my own interpretation. Assessing a play isn’t any easy process…and it shouldn’t be.
What should someone new to staged readings and PPF know?
No matter their interest in or experience with theatre, I would encourage people to watch PPF because it’s likely you’ll find a play you connect with. We’ve got a great a lineup this year and no two plays are alike. I’d also say be ready to use your imagination. Staged readings are about hearing a play out loud and are pretty simple from a visual standpoint. They don’t use all the technical elements and staging of a full production. But, if you’re open to imagining what it’d look like along the way, a reading can be just as thrilling!
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