2016-09-01 / Arts & Entertainment News



GULFSHORE PLAYHOUSE’S ANNUAL NEW WORKS FESTIVAL is always full of surprises. The surprise this year is that all five new plays that will be presented as readings were written by women.

“We didn’t set out to feature women playwrights,” says Audrey Zielenbach, artistic assistant with the professional company. She and artistic associate Jeffrey Binder read every one of the approximately 150 works submitted in the competition. “There were a number of plays written by men (in the semi-finalist group), but our favorites happened to all be written by women.”

Women’s plays are historically underrepresented on stage, so having a festival with all female playwrights is highly unusual.

From the initial entries, Ms. Zielenbach, Mr. Binder and a group of readers chose 30 favorites. Ms. Zielenbach and Mr. Binder narrowed those down to 10 before Kristen Coury, Gulfshore Playhouse founder and producing artistic director, selected the five finalists.

Jeffrey Binder, Gulfshore Playhouse artistic associate director. 
VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Jeffrey Binder, Gulfshore Playhouse artistic associate director. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY In addition, compelling stories with unique circumstances and interesting characters, the finalists had to be something Gulfshore Playhouse could cast. An entry might have been an amazing play, but if it had too many people in it, or nine women, for example, it wouldn’t work, Mr. Binder explains. (Of the 10 actors taking part this year, eight have roles in more than one of the plays.)

“We all had our favorites, the plays that really knocked our socks off, resonated with us personally,” Mr. Binder says, but there was “general agreement” among them as he, Ms. Coury and Ms. Zielenbach considered the semi-finalists. “The question (became), how do we fit those plays into the festival?,” he says.

In addition to putting the playwrights together with professional actors and directors, the New Works Festival gives audiences the opportunity to be part of the playwriting process. After each presentation they are encouraged to give feedback and ask questions.

CENSABELLA CENSABELLA “It’s a real opportunity for the playwright to use the audience, to use everyone around them, as a sounding board to their work,” Mr. Binder says. They take to heart audience reactions, he adds. “They hear their work, wrestle with it, change it.”

Some might do a complete rewrite, while others will tweak here and there, changing only a few things.

“These plays have never been on a stage or seen by an audience before,” Ms. Zielenbach says, adding any of the five “could be the next great American play.”

Ms. Coury was out of the country on vacation, but Mr. Binder and Ms. Zielenbach agreed to talk about each of this year’s new works:

¦ “Paradise” by Laura Maria Censabella This two-person play features a Yemeni-American student and her science teacher at an inner-city high school in the Bronx.

MERRILL MERRILL “He has a religious past, but has become disillusioned,” Ms. Zielenbach says about the teacher. “They form this unlikely pairing and embark on a scientific study.”

She recently learned that the play has earned a grant and been commissioned as a partnership between the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project.

“We were drawn to this one,” Ms. Zielenbach says. “We don’t see many Yemeni people represented in theater. It’s so beautiful, so engaging … all three of us were completely in love with this play.”

DIAS DIAS “It’s an incredible exploration of the relationship between these two people,” Mr. Binder says. “It’s a meeting of these two very distinct and completely different worlds. One is full of hope and one has given up hope. How it is reconciled in the play is very beautiful and fascinating and complex.”

Ms. Censabella, a part-time assistant professor at The School of Drama at The New School in New York City, recently won the $10,000 ADAA William Saroyan Human Rights/Social Justice Drama Award for her play “Carla Cooks the War.” She has won three grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts for her plays and screenplays and also won two daytime television Emmy Awards.

The New Works Festival reading of “Paradise” takes place at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8.

¦ “Marla and Her Prayers” by Kim Merrill

HIATT HIATT Mr. Binder won’t give too much away about this one. “As with all wonderful plays, there’s a real twist to this that makes it fascinating,” he says.

The title character is confronting the fact that the person who shot and killed her son is about to be released from prison. And he is the son of a friend. Marla’s son was gay; he and his killer were both teenagers. Now she must reconcile the fact of the killer’s release and whether or not she’s going to confront him.

“As theater-makers, we’re drawn to scripts that jump off the page at you,” says Ms. Zielenbach. “This one is really theatrical … We just loved how it stood out to us. It’s darkly funny, a real exploration of grief and the way we deal with complicated things.”

Mr. Binder will direct the reading of “Marla and Her Prayers,” which will feature three actresses familiar to Gulfshore Playhouse patrons: Jessica Wortham

JACOBS JACOBS (“An Enemy of the People”), Maureen Silliman (“Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” and previous New Works Festival readings) and Amy Van Nostrand (“The Glass Menagerie”).

Other plays by Ms. Merrill have been produced by NJ Repertory, Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Theater for the New City, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and Manhattan Theatre Source, among others.

The reading of “Marla and Her Prayers” will be at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9.

¦ “The Last Allegiance” by Annalisa Dias

This play is modern retelling of the Medieval Persian myth, “The Shahnahmeh.”

“It’s cool to bring that to life in an accessible way,” says Ms. Zielenbach. “This is our big cast epic,” she says jokingly, adding the play requires six actors, but contains many more characters.

It tells the story of a wicked old king who grows jealous of one of his sons and sends him off on a task that he believes will kill him.

“It’s about honor and pride and pragmatism,” Mr. Binder says. “What is the right thing to do on a grand scale? When you honor your father but do the wrong thing, what is the right thing? What does wisdom teach you?

“What happens when you follow a code or an ideal without taking into account the consequences whether following that ideal is the ultimate good?”

Ms. Dias is a performer, director and playwright whose works have been staged in Washington, D.C., New York, London and Glasgow. She is a producing playwright with The Welders, a Washington, D.C., playwrights collective, and co-founder of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice.

The reading of “The Last Allegiance” will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10.

¦ “Miss Keller Has No Second Book” by Deb Hiett

This play might remind audience members of the late novelist Harper Lee. It’s about fictional author Agnes Keller. Now quite elderly, she published one well-known book and then became a recluse.

“She’s being faced with a significant and life-changing event which has just occurred,” Ms. Zielenbach says, “and suddenly she is being visited by a number of people who she really doesn’t want to see. It’s about her grappling with change and her family, and whether she is obligated, because of this book that was so well-loved, to create more work for the world.”

“It explores her own relationship with her family and her life as an artist as (she relates) to the outside world, when one of her protections is gone and whether she is going to be taken advantage of, as an artist, as a person.”

This reading will feature Ms. Silliman as the aging author and Ms. Nostrand as the second lead.

Ms. Hiett moved to Los Angeles after years of living in New York City, where she was an actress, dancer, musician and writer. “Miss Keller Has No Second Book” was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the 2016 PlayPenn New Play Workshop and the 2016 Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship, as well as a finalist in the 2016 Route 66 New Play Workshop.

The Gulfshore Playhouse New Works Festival reading of “Miss Keller Has No Second Book” will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11.

¦ “Lunch at Audrey’s” by Jarlath Barsanti-Jacobs

Ms. Zielenbach describes “Lunch at Audrey’s” as “almost a one-woman show,” for although it has a cast of three people, two of them are “coming in and out and playing a variety of people.”

The Audrey in the title is actress Audrey Hepburn. It’s 1960. She’s 30 years old, at her Swiss chalet preparing to have Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti over for lunch. But a big snowstorm rages outside, and she begins reflecting on a variety of things: her marriage and pregnancy, and whether she should take the role offered her in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

The playwright has done copious research on Ms. Hepburn, Ms. Zielenbach says. “It’s interesting, stepping into the mindset of Audrey Hepburn and into her private life, imagining how she would deal with all these complicated things that are happening,” she says.

“It’s also a glimpse into her career thus far, her experience with other actors, directors, agents,” Mr. Binder adds. “It’s a glimpse of her in that Hollywood period when her star was rising. It’s grand old Hollywood and the colorful characters within it.”

“Lunch at Audrey’s” is Ms. Barsanti- Jacobs’ first play. She worked in New York City as a copywriter for TV commercials, specializing in jingle lyrics. She recently wrote the original book and lyrics for “Fire Island,” a musical about the shenanigans of group shares in a beach house, and the book and lyrics for “Miracolo,” a musical love story set in Italy about the rivalry between conventional and alternative medicine.

The reading of “Lunch at Audrey’s” takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15. ¦

Fourth annual New Works Festival

>> Who: Gulfshore Playhouse

>> Where: The Norris Center, Naples

>> When: Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 8-11, and Thursday, Sept. 15

>> Cost: $15 for one show, $25 for two, $35 for three, $45 for four and $55 for all five shows

>> Info: (866) 811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org

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