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In the Bard Business

BPF Celebrates 20 Years of Raising Home-Grown Writers

Joe Dennison's 1999 work Aquarium
Director Wayne Shipley rehearses Theodore Groll's 2001 fest entry Run Past the Sun with actors Kevin Donnelly and Josh Petroski.
Kenneth F. Hoke-Witherspoon's Last Night at Ace High, from 1987.
Lee Moler's 1987 play Bop

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/27/2001

Joe Dennison calls himself "a regular Joe Schmoe who loves to write plays." For much of his adult life, though, the 48-year-old College Park resident hasn't had a lot of time to follow his muse. Though he received a degree in theater from the University of Maryland in 1981, he's found himself immersed in the responsibilities of raising four children and working as a project manager for a commercial painting contractor. He indulges his love of the stage only at nights and on weekends and vacations.

"I feel like I have two lives," he says. "Every day I put on my painter's whites and drive a van with a ladder on it. I'm a working-class guy. Then I switch gears and I'm a writer at home or when I'm on vacation. I'm in my glory when I'm in my Bethany Beach house hammering out a play and eating crabs."

It's for Maryland-based artists such as Dennison that a trio of local theaters founded the Baltimore Playwrights Festival (BPF) 20 years ago--to encourage them to create, and to give the fruits of their creativity an outlet. In Dennison's case, BPF's support has helped tremendously. "The Baltimore Playwrights Festival got me going again," says Dennison, who has had seven plays produced by BPF since 1989, two of which also won Maryland Arts Council awards. (His eighth BPF play and also a third Arts Council award-winner, Anthem, opens at Fells Point Corner Theatre July 19 in a production by Uncommon Voices.)

These days, he says, "I tend to be prolific" when writing his plays during stolen moments. "I could whip one out a year. I have a lot of ideas I haven't even pursued yet."

BPF has helped spur the work of dozens of playwrights--most of whom, like Dennison, hold down jobs and live lives far from the footlights. This summer, the fest will world-premiere 11 plays by Maryland writers; not counting this year's festival, BPF has staged 168 plays by 112 scribes.

These playwrights have people like John Bruce Johnson, founder and president emeritus of the Vagabond Players, to thank for the opportunity to stretch their imaginations and writing skills.

The festival began, Johnson says, as a way of pruning one local theater's slush pile--its stack of unsolicited plays sent in by wannabe bards. "People kept sending scripts to Vagabonds, and I didn't have time to read them all," he says. "I thought it would be nice to find a way to have folks come down and read the plays and critique them. Anybody who wrote a play--good, bad, or indifferent--could send in a script. It started in a small way, but then it just snowballed."

In 1981, Johnson talked over the idea with Brian West and Al Tyler of Fells Point Theatre and Chris Dickerson of Corner Theatre (since merged into the Fells Point Corner Theatre), and the first summer festival in 1982 presented five shows at the Vagabond, Fells Point, and Corner theaters.

The very first BPF production was UFO!, co-written by Grant Carrington and Tom Monteleone. Carrington says it also was his first produced play. Now a 63-year-old computer programmer in Laurel, he recalls with a laugh how nerve-wracking he found the whole experience back in 1982: "One of the actors in the production, Leo Knight, told me I radiated tension just sitting in a chair."

Maybe novice playwrights feel anxious because for many it's the first time they've gotten such specific, public criticism of their work. The BPF selection process, which begins every year after the Sept. 30 deadline, gives each playwright feedback on the merits of his or her script. Every submission--the BPF receives about 70 a year--is first stripped of its byline (to prevent favoritism) and read by a committee of bleary-eyed judges who do a written critique that is sent to the playwright. From that batch, the committee culls its favorites and stages monthly public readings that the playwrights are encouraged to attend. The field of entrants is winnowed further as individual theaters decide which scripts they'll stage. During rehearsals, the playwrights work alongside the actors and director to bring their shows to life.

The BPF 2001 Lineup

Seasons of Love and Laughter by Jim Cary, June 28-July 15, at the Fells Point Corner Theatre

Brotha by J. H. Chapmyn, July 6-28, at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

Free Fall by Mark Scharf and Anthem by Joe Dennison, July 19-Aug. 5, an Uncommon Voices production at FPCT

Knees and Toes by Michael Wright, July 19-Aug. 5, a Mobtown Players production at AXIS Theatre

The Day They Left Home by Bob Racine, July 26-Aug. 5, a Director¦s Choice Theatre Company production at Kittamaqundi Center, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia

Run Past the Sun by Theodore Groll, July 27-Aug. 5, at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park

Why Do Men Have Nipples? by Ray Hamby, Aug. 3-19, at the Vagabond Players

Seafood Buffet by Rosemary Frisino Toohey, Aug. 9-26, at FPCT

Memorial Day by Chuck Spoler, Aug. 10-Sept. 1, at the Spotlighters

Take Two by Richard Espey, Aug. 16-Sept. 2, a Director¦s Choice Theater Company production at Arena Players

Baltimore Playwrights Festival subscriptions are available at $45 for six tickets, which can be used for any BPF show, with advance reservations. Mail a check payable to Baltimore Playwrights Festival, 251 S. Ann St., Baltimore, MD 21231. Please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Tickets for individual plays are available at the box offices of the theaters staging those productions; prices vary. For more information, call the BPF office at (410) 276-2153.

Thurston Griggs, himself a playwright who has been represented in the festival, has been part of the selection committee for 12 years, during which, he says, he's read an average of 55 scripts per year. "I drool at each one," he says with a laugh. "We'll do a critique even if we think it stinks or it's technically impossible to stage."

And what sorts of things are the BPF's readers reading? Some fest vets say that many novice playwrights are producing scripts that would work better on television than on a live stage. "They're quite elaborate, with constant scene changes and things popping up," says BPF vice chairperson Miriam Bazensky, who is directing Mark Scharf's Free Fall at Fells Point Corner Theatre (FPCT) for the fest this summer. "With a script, we're wondering if it's feasible, but it's the choice of individual theaters what they will do."

Bazensky loves the process of working with the playwrights to refine their scripts as they go into staged readings and, for the lucky few, into a full production; luckiest of all are those honored at a season-capping awards ceremony.

"I consider every play that goes into the festival a work in progress," Bazensky says. To which FPCT board president Beverly Sokal adds, "It's the playwright who has the last word" in terms of the final form a script takes.

The playwrights say they enjoy the collaboration too. Dennison says BPF gives him a prime opportunity to "work in a theater environment and not a vacuum. There is a bond of us hanging together."

Some of the credit for that bonding belongs to the festival readers and administrators, who tend to be a faithful bunch. BPF chairperson Rodney Bonds, who is directing Chuck Spoler's entry Memorial Day at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre this year, says the festival "has held on because it's a good mix for a lot of different people. It's a classic win-win situation. It's very difficult for a new playwright to get a play read, critiqued, and produced."

Since BPF's debut season, careers have blossomed. Several of the playwrights have become regular festival entrants. Consider the case of 44-year-old Gaithersburg resident Mark Scharf; Free Fall will be his eighth BPF production. Scharf holds a master's of fine arts in playwriting from the University of Virginia. His 1999 BPF play, Falling Grace, received a staged reading last year at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, and was produced a few months ago at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. He credits BPF for giving him confidence in his work. "The festival offers a very welcoming and supportive environment you don't get elsewhere," Scharf says. "I'm more sure of my own voice."

Although Scharf has been able to make a living tangentially related to the stage (he's a Web and CD-ROM copywriter who also teaches college-level theater courses), more often BPF writers support themselves in nontheatrical jobs. But sometimes their day gigs feed subject matter to their art. Kathleen Barber, a 50-year-old Northwood resident, has had seven of her plays produced by BPF. She is the co-owner of a metal fabrication company based in Hampstead, Fairlawn Tool and Die, an experience she used to describe the office environment in her 1999 BPF play, Caz.

Having a successful BPF track record, Barber says, "makes me feel confident, because people came to see my plays. We're allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. My first play had too much exposition. I had to learn that drama is all about action, whereas in fiction you can explain everything."

All manner of playwrights and plots have been produced by BPF since 1982. "There have been scripts on just about every subject," Bonds says. "We've noticed some trends over the years. Some years we had a lot of Baltimore[-related scripts] submitted, other years it was the Angry White Male festival, and there have been years when it seemed like it would [be the] Jewish playwrights festival or the gay playwrights festival."

Adds Bazensky, "We're getting more dysfunctional families now." And Griggs, who reads more scripts than anybody, notes with a shrug, "Some of them are written by sick people too."

They wouldn't have it any other way. The fest's veterans are confident that, in Dennison's words, "it'll go for another 20 years."

The longevity of the festival should come as no surprise, FPCT's Sokal says. "We do it with our own time and love," he says, "which is how community theater operates."

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