If you were looking for Tina Parker last month, she was hiding in a dark corner booth somewhere, slurping whiskey mixed with energy drinks, wading through 400 full-length play submissions. Her friends are used to her annual month-long absence though, because this is year 16 for Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, a month-long presentation of six brand spankin' new plays. And though Parker might be exhausted by play 399, it's her favorite time of the year.
"This is the future of American theater," says Parker, who works alongside Chris Carlos as Kitchen Dog's co-artistic directors. "The way for theater to stay current and relevant for audiences today is to tell people the stories of their lives in present time and the New Works festival is an essential component of that for us."
Twenty-three years ago, a group of Southern Methodist University alumni founded Kitchen Dog Theater,with the goal to present plays that challenge the establishment. It was the company's role to serve as the defendant for the "kitchen dog," the symbolic victim of life's cyclical injustice in Samuel Beckett'sWaiting for Godot. To this day Kitchen Dog remains the local theater scene's provocateur, presenting primarily new plays, often with challenging or uncomfortable subject matter by contemporary (meaning living) playwrights. Every season, there are five mainstage shows culminating in the New Works Festival. The plays are consistently edgy, polished and damn fine entertainment.
The festival features the season's final mainstage show as its centerpiece, as well as six staged readings. Hometown slugger Matt Lyle's Barbecue Apocalypse debuted as a staged reading last year, earning the mainstage slot at this year's fest. A Dallas native now residing in Chicago, Lyle is a deliciously clever playwright, whose newest play casts an apocalyptic cloud over a neighborhood cookout. For season ticket holders, this play is sure to be a delightful bookend with the opening show, Detroit, which also told the story of a backyard cookout gone haywire.
To fill five of the six staged reading slots, Kitchen Dog holds an open call for submissions from playwrights across the world. This year alone, submissions arrived from Australia, England, Canada and Israel. Any play chosen for the festival (and occasionally some that aren't selected) are circulated throughout the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit companies, like Kitchen Dog, committed to developing and producing new plays. Often, another NNPN member theater will go on to fully produce a play chosen by Kitchen Dog for the fest.
"Reading the plays, you really get a sense of the current cultural zeitgeist," Parker says. "What people are concerned with or thinking about comes across in numerous plays. Sometimes you find a play from Israel deals with the same issues as a play from Texas. When we first started the war overseas, you saw a lot of sand imagery."
In an effort to further develop the creation of new plays, the final slot in the festival is reserved for a student in the University of Texas' Master of the Fine Arts in Playwriting Program, a partnership launched in 2013.
"We're not really big enough to have a playwright in residence program and, additionally, the problem has always been, who wants to come to Dallas?" Parker says. "But working with UT has helped our Dallas cause, because we can show off the city, work with a developing play and latch into one of the best playwriting programs in the country."
This year's UT play is Katie Bender's The Fault, about a house that sits on the ever-widening geological divide between the redwoods and the Pacific Ocean, and the fractured family within. Bender, a third-year master's candidate, will spend a week at Kitchen Dog, developing the play and working with Parker as the reading's director. Then she will have a chance to receive feedback from the audience who sees the work at the festival.
"One of the most important things we offer our grad playwrights is professional outreach to theaters that have an expertise in and a commitment to the creation of new work," says Steven Dietz, faculty member of the UT playwriting department and award-winning playwright (See his Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure at Dallas Theater Center). "[Bender] writes plays of hard-won hope, plays that test the faith of their characters, plays that challenge audience's hearts and not just their heads. I think The Fault is an exciting new play and showcases an important early-career voice. You'll be glad to spent time in its company."
The format for the readings is simple. Actors with scripts in hand perform the plays. Afterward, the audience participates in a conversation during which the director asks questions or prompts discussions of specific themes or trouble spots. If Parker wants to clear one thing up about the New Works fest, it's that staged readings don't have to be boring. Perhaps, this common misconception stems from the lack of props or costumes. The format strips plays down to language and story, and if it's a good play, the process is exciting. And to have whittled down 400 to just six, the quality of these plays is sure to be top-notch. Even if you dislike a certain play, you can always visit Parker at the bloody mary bar between shows.
"It's a big theater party. Come spend the afternoon with us, have a cocktail, and talk to me about this play," Parker says. "I'm giving away popcorn snacks and bloody marys. Well, sometimes I make mimosas. It depends on my mood."
The New Works Festival fires up with Barbecue Apocalypse, which opens May 23. The staged readings take place the afternoons of May 31, June 7 and June 21. All readings are pay-what-you-can. Click through to the next page to see the full festival line-up.
1 p.m., Saturday May 31: The Thrush and the Woodpecker Los Angeles playwright Steve Yockey's newest play tells the story of Brenda and her son after his expulsion from college. The action unfolds when a mysterious woman arrives on their doorstep with buried secrets and stories about birds. Specifically, stories about thrushes and woodpeckers.
4 p.m., Saturday, May 31: A Perfect Robot Austin-based playwright Sarah Saltwick returns to Dallas with a play that sounds like the robot-version of Her. An inventor has created a robot in search of the perfect soulmate and goes on a quest to find the final piece of Mollybot's soul.
1 p.m., Saturday, June 7: The Fault Meet Katie Bender and shake her hand before she takes her master's from UT and goes on to win prizes.
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4 p.m., Saturday, 7: Two Front Teeth In Philadelphia-based playwright Katharine Clark Gray's new play a house repair gone wrong busts Scott's hand and knocks out Nat's front teeth. But without money to repair their injuries, everyone assumes she's a knocked-around housewife. Gray's play explores themes of affordable health car and gender bias, and, obviously, the dangers of DIY home repair.
1 p.m., Saturday, June 21: The Johnsons New York City-based playwright Amina Henry explores the American dream as it falls apart. How long can a perfect family with a perfect life stay perfect?
4 p.m., Saturday June 21: The Firestorm New York City-based playwright Meridith Friedman follows a racially charged prank during a gubernatorial campaign that forces an aspiring politician's African-American wife into the spotlight. When she is forced to defend him against charges of racism, their marriage takes as much heat as his campaign.
More information at kitchendogtheater.org.