Adriana Perez calls the From Scratch festival of staged readings of new works “a little incubator.”
Perez, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs’ programs administrator, has seen From Scratch grow into one of the region’s most important arts programs for up-and-coming playwrights since its founding as Downstage Miami in 2001.
On Sunday, at the Deering Estate at Cutler, four South Florida playwrights who have been participating in the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs Playwright Development Program will showcase their full-length plays to audiences for the first time. The plays are between 90 and 120 minutes and are free.
The four writers – Andie Arthur, Edward G. Excaliber, Vanessa Garcia and Susan Westfall – have been working with master playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer in the two-year program to create these showcase plays that tackle addiction, identity, love and loss.
This time, the playwrights’ work had time to marinate, to evolve and fine-tune. The program expanded from a one-year to a two-year training – “boot camp,” Perez calls it – because of the work involved in getting a play from idea to paper to stage-ready.
Typically, 20 scripts will be delivered per cycle and a handful of aspiring playwrights are chosen by a panel of performing arts experts to work with Laufer. Arthur, Excaliber, Garcia and Westfall advanced to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis where their plays were “packaged,” meaning the plays were redimensionalized from paper script to live bodies reading them out loud, Perez explains.
In this stage just before the presentations in Palmetto Bay, directors get involved and do what directors do – cut or reimagine characters, alter or scrap scenes, call for rewrites. The process is like “moving chess pieces, the script comes back and it’s at another level,” Perez says.
Ultimately, the goal is to provide local stages with plays to produce.
“Some of the playwrights have been able to achieve literary representation and have risen to the level where regional playwrights consider them colleagues. Their plays have been picked up and premiered in regional theaters. We have such a great community of playwrights here, not only for the stage but a lot of script writers and in the creative writing scene,” Perez says of previous participants like Christopher Demos-Brown, Juan Sanchez, David Caudle and Westfall who have all seen their plays performed at regional theaters like Actors’ Playhouse and New Theatre in Coral Gables and the Roxy Performing Arts Center in Kendall.
“It’s hugely important because from the collection of playwrights who submit, it’s a blind competition,” says Westfall, 58, who is co-founder and literary director of City Theatre. “What the county does with that program is provide the opportunities, like this, to get out of my Miami ZIP code to come up here to Minneapolis in a Playwrights Center,” Westfall said in a phone interview from Minneapolis. “You read a lot of plays, see the work that is out there, and can ask, ‘Is my work fresh? Is it resonant? Does it interest you in the middle of the country as much as I think it’s interesting?’ So over the years a number of playwrights and masters have come along [like] Nilo Cruz and I’ve worked with all of them … so it’s very good professionally.”
For this cycle, the Deering Estate in Palmetto Bay steps in for the Biltmore Hotel, where previous groups worked on their drafts in a conference room inside the Coral Gables landmark. Renovations are currently underway to enhance the existing auditorium at Deering to serve as a dedicated space for writers and performers after receiving a $35,000 grant in 2012 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of its Knight Arts Challenge for the Theatre Lab project. The new space opens with the One-Minute Play Festival on Jan. 25-26.
“This need to happen here,” Perez says of this weeks’ readings at the Deering, a historic 444-acre natural and archeological preserve and historic site which sprawls on Biscayne Bay.
“[Charles] Deering used to be friends with myriad artists and writers who would come in. Deering is a natural artwork incubator. The board room in which [the playwrights] work has bay windows to the boat basin and so they can walk out to nature trails and write. Sometimes at lunch they write and chat on the lawn by the water,” she says.
Perez also dishes on the Deering’s celebrated reputation as a breeding ground for paranormal activities. Every fall, the League of Paranormal Investigators conducts ghost tours on the Deering grounds and its main house. Apparently, the spirits are connoisseurs of the theater.
“The ghosts love when the playwrights are here,” Perez says. “When the playwrights leave, the ghosts grow docile as they await the next artistic infusion.”
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