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Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Monday, June 06, 2005
 
A couple of nights ago, I went to see what has become a very important yearly tradition for me: The Blank Theatre Company's Annual Young Playwrights Festival. Every June, the theatre puts on a dozen shows from writers no older than nineteen and as young as thirteen. Three shows are performed each weekend, and they are given the best production that one can give with a minimal budget. C and D-list celebrities are cast in the pieces and professionals in the theater industry help the writers flesh out their plays.

I was first involved in the festival when they produced a play of mine three years ago. It was an incredible experience. They brought in a supporting player from the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to star in it, and a Tony-nominated Broadway director to be my mentor for the piece (although in the midst of Tony Madness, he only had time for a half-hour phone conversation). For a kid who had just moved to Anaheim after living in Barstow (and growing up in Idaho), to see a team of professionals - all volunteering their time - quickly and efficiently bring my play to life was an incredible, exhilirating experience (I wish I could have remembered more of it. I was operating on four hours of sleep every night...much like nowadays).

I have tried to help out when I can (I served on the Play Selection Committee last year, and would have been in one of the musicals if my work schedule had permitted...which it didn't), but my favorite way of contributing is as audience member. There have been weeks in which all three shows were fantastic (last year's third week was a particular highlight) and weeks that were rather forgettable (2002's fourth week was quite simply not good).

This week's selections ranked high. After an amusing but forgettable start, the festival was kicked into high gear with Tessa Leigh Williams' "Home For Christmas", which was a frantic, intense and original look at a mother and daughter who drive each other literally insane. Williams is the kind of girl who, at first glance, seems like the typical teenager, the kind you'd see not giving you the time of day. Yet she is a really sweet girl who writes suspenseful, consistently surprising plays (I wish I had been writing the same kind of plays when I was her age). This, along with her subway thriller "Last Stop Downtown", which was a highlight of last year's festival, has shown her to be a very promising new voice.

Then the evening concluded with Kit Steinkellner's "The Room Next Door". For the last three festivals, Steinkellner has proven to be a real find. While most of the writers submit pieces that are either staged sitcoms (this is a festival in Hollywood, after all) or attempts to show how "edgy" they can be (sorry, Bryce), she writes with grace and elegance, etching characters who are witty, intelligent and fed up with the absurdity of modern life (these characters are usually fans of classic movies and music). So imagine my shock when the play opened with two "Oh my gawd" college princesses fussing over their looks and saying they'd have sex with each other if they were guys while an English girl with glasses sat in the corner reading a book. Fortunately, what seemed at first to be a semi-autobiographical sitcom idea turned out to be a comment on the withering of the idea of true love in the 21st century, and the characters, who started out as caricatures, each showed unexpected depth as the play progressed.

So, the real reason that I'm writing this (apart from continuing to mention the names of these talented writers until they become famous, which reminds me...Yelena Moskovich, Shane Lynch, David Watson, Adam Westfall Cochran, Max Freedman, Jason Connors) is to show the change that I went through from last year's festival to the one I attended last night.

Usually, I spend copious amounts of time before and after the festival going around, talking to everyone I know (which is an extensive list, seeing as the same people return year after year) and "schmoozing" (for those unfamiliar with Hollywood, that comes from a Yiddish word meaning talk, and refers to the unique way that the artists of Hollywood can simultaneously have a casual chat with you while at the same time feverishly networking).

This time, however, I found myself just giving general greetings to those I saw, extending simple congratulations to the playwrights and spending most of my time talking to my friend who came with me (and brushing off the colony of ants that invaded my jacket while I was leaning against a tree in front of the theater). Having been so furiously working in Orange County theatre, I suddenly realized that the theatre scene in Los Angeles in many ways frustrates me.

I'm not talking about the quality of the shows. For being a town that is dominated by sitcoms and action film sequels, Los Angeles continually puts on interesting, original and challenging works that, while not always successful, are usually noble efforts. I often bring up the productions of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "The Woman in Black", "Cold/Tender" and "Heathen Valley" as great theatrical experiences.

But I realized that the typical L.A. Audience Member that populates these shows drives me absolutely insane. They are wearing outfits that cost more than I make in a month and are covered in more chemicals than a lab rat. They show up to theatre not because it is the most exciting form of storytelling and an excellent way to instigate social change, but simply because it is an avenue to the film and television industry. They spend any downtime schmoozing with anyone that could possibly further their career (upon finding out that I'm a writer, I usually get approached by actresses), and they always seem to emerge from the shows with a look of "I didn't get it".

Last year, my sister told me that when she was going to see the Young Playwrights Festival with me, her agent suggested to her that she use the time spent there to network. He encouraged her to talk to people, sell her image, etc. The idea really made both of us uncomfortable. She couldn't just go to see a show? She had to try to go around charming the pants off of everyone? Then after the show, she waited around while I, yes, went around trying to charm the pants off of everyone.

Before the show on Saturday, the theatre's artistic director was talking about Young Playwrights Festival success stories. He proudly noted past festival winners who graduated from the graduate playwriting program at Yale and whose sitcoms were picked up for a second season. I was seated in the front row and he said, "I see right over there Jeremy Gable. We produced his play 'American Way' last fall, and he recently received a great review in L.A. Times for a show that he adapted in Orange County. So he's busy doing...playwriting?"

The inflection behind that last word was really telling. Almost as if to say, "That's it?" Apparently, escaping a small, uncultured town and becoming a produced playwright at 22 without any sort of formal education in the subject is not a good enough success story. That won't happen until I have a prestigious degree or a television show to my name. I realized that I would have been more impressive if I had told him about the meeting I'll be having at a production company this week, and that as long as I stay at Hunger Artists and The Blank, I'll only be worth mentioning if I'm attending the performance.

Sure, Orange County theatre is a place that has trouble with finding decent actors, securing financial stability and pulling in crowds. But the majority of people who go to see a show in Ornage County are there to see a show. No agendas, no desperation, just a passion for live performance. It's so nice to go to a show and not have to perform.

So my hats off to those writers that will try to preserve the magic of live theatre. Keep the dream alive, and don't let glitz and glamour tarnish it.

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