More than 150 volunteers work on FutureFest. Here, Chris Newman puts the finishing touches on a set. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

Dayton takes center stage this weekend at festival of new plays

It takes a village to produce FutureFest, the annual festival of new plays that’s put Dayton on the international theatrical map. In this case, all the “villagers” are wild about live theater.

This year’s weekend event, slated for July 19-21, attracted 353 script submissions from around the globe, 100 more than last year.

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The six winning plays and the men and women who penned them will be introduced to Miami Valley audiences at the 27th annual festival hosted by the Dayton Playhouse.

After each production, playwrights take the stage to share the inspiration for their dramas and a panel of national adjudicators offers feedback. A grand-prize winner is selected by judges on the final evening.

Audience members are also invited to voice their reactions and are encouraged to interact with both playwrights and judges between plays. The idea is to aid playwrights in taking their previously unproduced plays to the next level.

About 70 percent of those who attend come for the entire weekend. In addition to the six plays, their weekend pass also includes an opening reception and champagne toast, coffee and sweets each morning and a Sunday night picnic supper in the gardens.

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More than 150 volunteers work on FutureFest. Here, costume designer Theresa Kahle fits costumes for the upcoming play, “On the Horizon.” CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Staff Writer

Focus on Playwrights

As Rich Orloff of New York City will attest, the focus of the weekend is always the playwrights. He first came to Dayton as a FutureFest finalist 26 years ago and will be returning this month with his play, “Men Overboard.”

“When FutureFest presented my comedy, ‘Veronica’s Position’, in 1993 it was one of the first times I got to show my work and connect with audiences,” Orloff says. “Although I’ve written many plays since then — and they’ve had hundreds of productions — there’s still a place inside me where I feel like an emerging playwright, and I’m as eager as ever to see how the Dayton audience will respond to my latest play. One of the joys of being a playwright is that the process of developing plays never gets old.”

Playwright Linda Ramsay-Detherage is also a returning author who says that although playwrights submit to festivals all over the country FutureFest will always be on her list. Last here in 2014 when her play, “Sugarhill” took top prize, she says the care and concern everyone in Dayton lavished on her play helped lead to a professional production the following year.

Ramsay-Detherage, who works for a professional theater in the Detroit area, says when she tells her colleagues that 200 people are willing to sit for three days and watch new works, she is greeted by unabashed skepticism. “The lessons that FutureFest teaches about the relationship between a theater and its audience is truly amazing,” she adds. “The folks at the Dayton Playhouse — the casts, crew, directors, administrators and their participating panels — make the whole experience memorable.”

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Adjudicators make it special

The FutureFest judges — always insightful as well as entertaining — are a weekend bonus. While many have been coming for years, fresh faces and opinions are always being added.

One of the returning favorites is Eleanore Speert, a New York playwright and publisher who says being an adjudicator at FutureFest helps her see theater in its “glorious regional light.”

“Working in the theater world, in my case behind the spotlight, I want to take in the different ways that theater is created, received, worked on, fought over,” she says. “Going to other cities and seeing how theaters work and reach out keeps me constantly aware of the ways that stories are told and who they reach.”

Behind the scenes

For the past 26 years, the mammoth undertaking has been accomplished by a dedicated group of more than 150 volunteers who do everything from reading scripts to rehearsing and staging the productions.

Margaret Baird, long-time script reader for the festival, first fell in love with theater as a teenager when she and her family lived in London. A retired high school English teacher, Baird says she’s able to throw herself into reading each play and often produces it in her head. “I can hear the various voices, visualize the action, argue with the author’s choice of plot development or choice of language, wonder about the tech possibilities,” she says. ” When I read it it becomes alive.”

She limits herself to one play a day. “Immediately after reading I write down my critique, give a score, and then a summary of the plot on a note card,” she says. “I also enjoy when our committee gets together and discusses each one. “Chuck Knickerbocker of Dayton loves his role as a driver. He picks playwrights and adjudicators up at the airport, takes them to their hotel, to the Playhouse, to meals. He enjoys being an ambassador for Dayton.

“I assure them when I first meet them that they are going to have an unforgettable experience,” Knickerbocker says. “They quickly bond and I enjoy learning about their experiences, their aspirations, their writing process. And I’ve learned to carry at least four umbrellas in my car.”

First time FutureFest actor Samuel Hamilton says the weekend is extremely helpful for a young actor at the beginning of his career.

Costume designer for this year’s fully staged presentations is Theresa Kahle, who says she’s passionate about theater as an art form. “My opportunities to be the original costumer of a work are some of my greatest experiences,” she says. “But it has been almost 20 years since I have done an original show and FutureFest is bringing that joy back to me. I feel lucky to get to read these scripts ahead of time and be part of making them come to life.”

Peggy Mangan has a demanding job as house manager. She’s responsible for finding ushers for all of the plays and also oversees food for weekend receptions and meals. “It’s a lot of ‘hurry and set up’ and then ‘hurry and take down,’ ” Mangan says. “I greet all of the patrons and if someone has a problem, I try to solve it. One year, for example, an adjudicator left her purse at the hotel so I went to her room to retrieve it. Another time a lady lost her hearing aid at Marion’s Piazza so I went there to get it. I try to be a Girl Friday!”

John Riley, originator of FutureFest, owns the Burger Master restaurant in Dayton. Each summer, he and his wife, Marty, donate fried-chicken dinners for the Sunday evening picnic-in-the-park.

“One of the things we’ve enjoyed most about FutureFest is our audiences and how much their participation and input brings to the weekend,” Riley says. “The meals are our way of saying thanks to them and to all of the volunteers and participants who make FutureFest such a wonderful event.”

The couple is in the process of selling their restaurant to their long-time manager, Carrie Johnson, who plans to continue the tradition of donating meals. “She’s met a lot of people from the theater, some of whom are now regular customers,” says Riley.

Thursday night add-on

In collaboration with the Dayton Playhouse, a one-woman show is being presented on Thursday evening, July 18. It’s free for FutureFest weekend pass holders; others can make a donation to FutureFest.

Written by 2017 FutureFest finalist Desiree York, “Fractured” explores one woman’s journey through the grieving process in the digital age: “finding truth, reconnecting with the outside world, and moving forward. ” York, who lives in California, will come to Dayton to direct the staged reading.

It’s fitting that the play stars actor Annie Pesch, who has been involved with FutureFest for the past 20 years. Audiences have watched Annie grow up; adjudicators have encouraged her to pursue her acting career.

This project is made possible in part by funding from an Artist Opportunity Grant from the Montgomery County Arts & Cultural District distributed by Culture Works. 

FUTUREFEST FINALISTS

“The Princess at Midnight” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage, Michigan. 8 p.m. Friday, July 19

Linda Ramsay-Detherage
Photo: Staff Writer

Jacob Simon, a tailor in Detroit in 1851, is about to open a factory when he and his wife, Rachel, are approached by abolitionist friends to help in a dangerous rescue. They are asked to help a mute runaway slave — known as the Princess — across the Detroit river to Canada. Because of a misjudgment by Jacob’s brother, the well-meaning tailor is put in an ethical dilemma as he considers the choice between helping a slave or turning her in. Based on a true story.

“Drone” Norman Mathews, New York. 10 a.m. Saturday, July 20

Norman Mathews
Photo: Staff Writer

Never imagining the toll it will take on his family, Mike Powell gives up his fighter-pilot wings to become a drone pilot at a base near Las Vegas. His first assignment is surveillance of a suspected Taliban insurgent. During the voyeuristic surveillance, Mike comes to know the Khan family intimately. The untold effects of this long-distance remote war prove devastating to both families.

“Which Way the Wind Blows” by Robert Weibezahl, California. 3 p.m. Saturday, July 20 

Robert Weibezahl
Photo: Staff Writer

Marty O’Neill is a good cop with an ordinary life, content with his job and marriage. But his contentment is shattered when he is faced with a decision that challenges everything he has always believed.

“On the Horizon” by Shelli Bookler, Pennsylvania. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 20

Shelli Bookler
Photo: Staff Writer

In 1912, the SS Californian set out from London toward Boston when the crew encountered a loose ice field and stopped for the night. The crew saw distress rockets fire from a ship nearby and tried to rouse Captain Stanley Lord from sleep to heed the call, but he refused to believe there was imminent danger. It was early the next day when the wireless operator realized they would become the ship that watched the Titanic sink.

“Fall with Me” by Jared Eberlein, Massachusetts. 10 a.m. Sunday, July 21

Jared Eberlein
Photo: Staff Writer

Set in 1932 in Baltimore, Maryland, Bithiah and J.J. Johnston are quietly surviving the Great Depression. Fifty-miles south, in Washington, the world is about to explode. When J.J.’s fellow “doughboys” arrive in search of someone to lead the fight against a government that left the veterans of The Great War and their families to perish, J.J. must decide what fight is truly his to win and what is worth the risk, should he lose.

“Men Overboard” by Rich Orloff, New York. 3 p.m. Sunday, July 21 

Rich Orloff
Photo: Staff Writer

“What makes a man?” explores the responsibility each of us has to protect the souls of those we love. A bar mitzvah in Manhattan brings together a father, three Jewish brothers who have taken different life paths, a 13-year-old boy and his bar mitzvah tutor. Tensions grow and anger becomes abuse.

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