Laura Maria Censabella, playwright of Paradise, was one of the five playwrights selected for the Fourth Annual New Works Festival.
Early in my career I developed plays at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference under the direction of Lloyd Richards. I considered those experiences to be the gold standard of play development as I worked alongside writers such as August Wilson, John Patrick Shanley, Richard Wesley and John Pielmeier, among others. Ever since then I have been searching for a theatre festival or conference with the same spirit of care for the playwright and new work. For a while I found that spirit at the New Harmony Project under Jim Houghton, but since then I have wandered across the theatrical landscape without finding home. That is until I found Gulfshore Playhouse—or should I say, until we found each other, and my play Paradise was developed as part of its Fourth New Works Festival.
Here’s what Gulfshore did to welcome the writer in me.
1. The festival is playwright centered. Truly. Other festivals say that and it isn’t always true no matter how well meaning. At Gulfshore Playhouse the question I heard most often, expressed in a thousand different ways, was “what do you need to do your writing?” As part of this playwright-centered approach, the writers are given incredibly beautiful and writing-conducive accommodations. Additionally, the very best actors are found to realize the work. My play Paradise is a two-hander which features a Muslim-American teenage girl at an inner city high school, and a former Southern Evangelical scientist forced to teach in a failing public school. Gulfshore Playhouse’s excellent casting director found the extraordinary New York-based Nadine Malouf who speaks Arabic; and Jeff Binder, Artistic Associate at the theatre, beautifully realized my character, Dr. Royston. My sensitive and supportive director Kristen Coury was egoless in her exploration of the text with me.
2. Gulfshore Playhouse creates instant community through a number of welcoming events in the first few days, such as a playwrights dinner, and on another evening, drinks for the entire company at Producing Artistic Director Kristen Coury’s house. This kind of hospitality sowed the seeds of friendships which blossomed later in the week.
3.This community becomes a family, both within the week and from year to year. There are actors who come back to Gulfshore Playhouse again and again. They are familiar with the process and therefore the playwrights are in relaxed but gentle hands. Like the O’Neill in the days of Lloyd, Gulfshore Playhouse—gloriously–does not care what age their selected playwrights are. August Wilson was forty when he was first chosen for the O’Neill under their blind submission policy. Ageism is the last bastion of unaddressed prejudice in the theatre, using coded words like “new and emerging voices” to exclude most playwrights over the age of 35. Gulfshore Playhouse’s blind selection process created room at the table for both seasoned and newer voices without reference to age or gender. In fact, all the playwrights chosen this year were women.
4. I’d like to add that a playwright-centric festival approach does not mean the audience is left out. Kristen Coury and everyone on staff conveyed a care and love for Gulfshore’s audience, and the audience reciprocated that care as evidenced by the packed houses for the readings. (160 people at mine!) I watched the audience’s expressions both before the readings and afterwards at the talk backs and I could see the excitement they felt at being part of the process of developing new plays. I also appreciated how both Kristen and Jeff cultivated a way of talking about plays with the audience, creating a shared vocabulary together.
The Gulfshore Playhouse New Works Festival has restored my faith that even in a time of reduced budget for the arts in this country, there is still a place that will pay more than lip service to nurturing new voices. Because I could sit down, take my metaphorical shoes off, and settle back a little, I felt comfortable and safe. When you have such strong collaborators, when no one is treating you like a child telling you what is wrong with your play, you yourself are more likely to notice and remedy its faults, and glory in its successes.
-Laura Maria Censabella