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Robert May: Out on a limb

Robert May
Robert May
Place

Scripps Ranch Theatre

9783 Avenue of Nations, San Diego

Budding playwrights used to ask Robert May why their scripts weren’t being produced. Some had a staged reading, but nothing beyond that. May kept his “flip answer” to himself: “Write a better play.”

“Now I ask: ‘How can I help them write it?’”

And not just write: create a multi-staged process to develop the work, including a full production and remuneration to boot.

For 15 years, the Fritz Theater hosted the largest new play festival on the West Coast. Each summer, the Fritz Blitz gave 10 to 12 a full staging. The quality varied but the commitment never did.

May directed several Blitz shows. When the festival ceased in 2008, he wondered “what can I do to bring something like it back?”

Inspirations: while earning an MFA in Acting from University of Arizona, May often worked on new scripts in the school’s Black Box Theatre. He also spent several years in Chicago, which is legendary for nurturing playwrights, David Mamet and Tracy Letts among them.

“Chicago celebrates new work with a parental approach! Readings all the time, world premieres in storefront theaters, writers given time to grow.

“And the atmosphere’s amazing. You’ll always hear people say ‘a new show? We’d better go see it!’”

San Diego enjoys a national reputation as a major “theater town.” One element needs shoring up: cultivating not just new works but also local writers. San Diego falls far behind Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Minneapolis and others.

To be sure, a new play’s a risk for producers, theater boards, and subscribers. Frogs must be kissed. But the culture needs to grow so playwrights can.

With advice and mentoring from D. Candis Paule, an actor and director, and Deb Salzer, who founded the Playwrights Project in 1985, May devised a multi-staged program. He proposed it to the board of Scripps Ranch Theatre. “They trusted the project enough and budgeted a certain amount. Out on a Limb was born.”

The play must be a one-act, no longer than 35-minutes; it must take place in San Diego, but not necessarily be about local history.

The process runs from October, with calls for a submission of ideas — “not drafts of the play, just ideas” — to a full production for each finalist in the last two weeks of July.

Recently the committee announced the three finalists.

Jake Edmonson, Canary Cottage: A woman with Alzheimer-like symptoms worries, “will her friends be able to help keep her safe”?

Jack Cassidy, Borderline: How can we cross the border in two minutes instead of two hours? “Homeland Security would be happy to help — if you cooperate.”

Lisabeth Silverman, Unplugged: During a blackout, a techno-obsessed woman gets a call from her dead phone.

Next step: feedback and “production-ready” drafts due May 1. Then revision, rehearsals — the authors encouraged to attend (which is rare) — and full productions the last two weeks of July.

“We don’t write the play for them. And don’t expect to produce the best plays in the world. It’s not so much the end product, it’s about the process — and getting local playwrights to write.”

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Robert May
Robert May
Place

Scripps Ranch Theatre

9783 Avenue of Nations, San Diego

Budding playwrights used to ask Robert May why their scripts weren’t being produced. Some had a staged reading, but nothing beyond that. May kept his “flip answer” to himself: “Write a better play.”

“Now I ask: ‘How can I help them write it?’”

And not just write: create a multi-staged process to develop the work, including a full production and remuneration to boot.

For 15 years, the Fritz Theater hosted the largest new play festival on the West Coast. Each summer, the Fritz Blitz gave 10 to 12 a full staging. The quality varied but the commitment never did.

May directed several Blitz shows. When the festival ceased in 2008, he wondered “what can I do to bring something like it back?”

Inspirations: while earning an MFA in Acting from University of Arizona, May often worked on new scripts in the school’s Black Box Theatre. He also spent several years in Chicago, which is legendary for nurturing playwrights, David Mamet and Tracy Letts among them.

“Chicago celebrates new work with a parental approach! Readings all the time, world premieres in storefront theaters, writers given time to grow.

“And the atmosphere’s amazing. You’ll always hear people say ‘a new show? We’d better go see it!’”

San Diego enjoys a national reputation as a major “theater town.” One element needs shoring up: cultivating not just new works but also local writers. San Diego falls far behind Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Minneapolis and others.

To be sure, a new play’s a risk for producers, theater boards, and subscribers. Frogs must be kissed. But the culture needs to grow so playwrights can.

With advice and mentoring from D. Candis Paule, an actor and director, and Deb Salzer, who founded the Playwrights Project in 1985, May devised a multi-staged program. He proposed it to the board of Scripps Ranch Theatre. “They trusted the project enough and budgeted a certain amount. Out on a Limb was born.”

The play must be a one-act, no longer than 35-minutes; it must take place in San Diego, but not necessarily be about local history.

The process runs from October, with calls for a submission of ideas — “not drafts of the play, just ideas” — to a full production for each finalist in the last two weeks of July.

Recently the committee announced the three finalists.

Jake Edmonson, Canary Cottage: A woman with Alzheimer-like symptoms worries, “will her friends be able to help keep her safe”?

Jack Cassidy, Borderline: How can we cross the border in two minutes instead of two hours? “Homeland Security would be happy to help — if you cooperate.”

Lisabeth Silverman, Unplugged: During a blackout, a techno-obsessed woman gets a call from her dead phone.

Next step: feedback and “production-ready” drafts due May 1. Then revision, rehearsals — the authors encouraged to attend (which is rare) — and full productions the last two weeks of July.

“We don’t write the play for them. And don’t expect to produce the best plays in the world. It’s not so much the end product, it’s about the process — and getting local playwrights to write.”

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