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Theatre festival welcomes audience criticism

Chris Coduto/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Adrienne Perry (right) and Karen Arnold run through a scene in a rehearsal for the play "Odd Birds" by Eugenia Woods. The play is about a transsexual man who marries a lesbian woman.
By Susan Bonicillo
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 26, 2006
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Ry Herman wants you to be brutal with him.


The Tucson-based playwright is welcoming all slings and criticism for his play that will be featured in the upcoming Old Pueblo Playwrights' 15th Annual New Play Festival.

For his third year of participation in the festival, Herman's first work was entitled "Vamp." The play, which he describes as a supernatural, gothic, girl-meets-girl musical comedy, is having a successful run and will be premiered in Portland, Ore., later this year.

This is the year of "Dead Cat." A semi-autobiographical work, "Dead Cat" focuses on a divorced couple dealing with the death of a beloved cat. A phone call from the ex-wife discloses her desire to give the cat a proper Viking funeral, complete with floating funeral pyre and all.

Other plays in the festival include one about the after-effects of a relationship in which one partner undergoes a sex-change operation. Another play focuses on the world's funniest joke (whatever that might be).

Those plays, and others, will be featured in the four-day span of the festival.

However, the road to final production has taken much longer.

The Old Pueblo Playwrights is a nonprofit group that works with professional and aspiring playwrights. Members who meet weekly can have their plays read and critiqued by others in the craft. The 15th Annual New Play Festival is an opportunity for members to pick the best plays to showcase.

The festival plays took about a year to pick and develop, according to Herman.

"As a rule, there is no talking. As a playwright you just sit and take it," Herman said.

Beside talent, you've got to bring a thicker skin if you want to hang with this group.

"We have a reputation for being brutal," Herman said. "We all know each other and are honest about each other's plays."

It's natural for some playwrights to become defensive of their work and tell others what they should have been seeing, which is why the no-talking rule was instituted.

"If you don't want to hear what's wrong with your play, then it's best that you don't come," Herman warned.

With this festival, audiences get to have a feedback session with the playwright, again with the same stipulation of sitting there and taking it.

After the performance, the playwright can first ask questions about specifics that he or she wants to address and other areas in need of development, but that's all he or she is allowed to say. It's then the audience's turn to praise or smash whatever they just saw, with the playwright sitting front and center.

The unconventional atmosphere of this festival and the ability to talk back draws in crowds and usually the performances are packed with a receptive and critical audience, according to Herman.

"Audiences are a little kinder," Herman said. "In my experience they like to be nice. They want to like things, but they end up saying what they really think."

Even with this obligatory politeness, Herman said that it's the criticism of playgoers that is more feared than that of his peers.

"I know other playwrights and I know their work and critiqued them so I have a sense of their tastes and where they're coming from," Herman said. "In performance you're casting the play into the great unknown and you're thinking, 'Is this working or is this a waste of time?' I just don't know where they jump."

The 15th Annual New Play Festival will debut today and continue through Sunday. All performances will be held at the Cabaret Theatre inside the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday as well as 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $5 per performance. A $20 Festival Pass is available for all performances.

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