Over the weekend of May 4-6, South Coast Repertory’s (SCR) Pacific Playwrights Festival held its 10th Annual encampment in Costa Mesa. Seven plays had their first public airing: four as script-in-hand readings, one a semi-produced workshop with five performances, and two in full productions whose multi-week runs passed through the three-day Festival weekend. It was also a gathering of the American theater tribe – writers, administrators, funders, directors, literary managers, the public, and members of the media (including this writer, who, for full disclosure, previously worked here).
The writer roster split between four stalwarts of SCR’s stable and three younger scribes in their first presentation here. Among the vets were Richard Greenberg, Donald Margulies, José Rivera, and John Strand. The newcomers were Kenneth Lin, Julie Marie Myatt, and David Wiener. In a nice twist, Lin, Myatt, and Wiener benefited from the larger investment of full productions and the workshop staging while the elders provided reading material.
The Festival is a chance to survey what is on the minds of today’s American playwrights. Admittedly, the results require serious qualifying: writers are a very independent group to begin with, and any assessment must take into account the high-gauge screen of the theater’s selection process. Still, one theme that early on threatened to make this a "specific" playwrights festival was an issue confronting everyone, especially the middle-aged writers.
In Greenberg’s Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted, and Lin’s Po’ Boy Tango, the impact of a parent's recent or imminent passing was particularly important. Both of the productions, Myatt’s My Wandering Boy and Wiener’s System Wonderland, flipped the dynamic in different ways. In Myatt’s story, it's the younger generation that is lost. In Wiener’s drama, the generational succession is in the Hollywood context of careers, fame, loyalty, and the subject writers find hardest to resist: writers.
Among the broader issues was Wiener’s investigation of creativity in a commercial industry and a nicely turned bit of culture clash in the kitchen of Lin’s Tango. Here, a raw, regrettable showdown between Asian American and African-American friends becomes a riveting moment that, at least by measure of its uniqueness here, was the Festival’s proudest.