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Young Playwrights Return to Off-Broadway

Theatregoers who pride themselves on finding fresh talent and The Next Big Thing have had to wait three years to see a new crop of plays from Young Playwrights Inc. (YPI), but their wait is over. YPI is opening a festival of four short plays by young authors—its first since 1997—this weekend at the Cherry Lane Alternative Theatre, where it will run through Sept. 30.

The four works on the bill are some of the more promising plays submitted since the last YPI festival. Adam Feldman wrote his play, "A Mind of its Own," when he was 17; Sherry Ou-yang was 18 when she wrote "Fish-Eye View," as was Caroline Noble Whitbeck when she wrote "Woof"; and Gemma Cooper-Novack was 15 when she wrote "I'm Coming In Soon."

"These are very, very diverse works, exploring different styles of playwriting and expression," YPI managing director Brett Reynolds told Back Stage. According to information provided by YPI in advance of the Thurs., Sept. 14 opening, the topics and approaches range from "a poignant look at death in the family and its emotional aftermath" ("I'm Coming In Soon") to "a comic look at one young man's crisis of sexual identity, and his conflict with the mysterious 'Dr. Phallus'" ("A Mind of its Own.")

YPI was created in 1981 by then-Dramatists Guild President Stephen Sondheim, who said (in a letter on the website) that it currently receives "between 600 and 1,200 submissions each year from young writers 18 and under, and from all 50 states." And although every year YPI gets "entries talented enough to more than justify the cost of mounting them," three years ago it was forced to eliminate productions in New York City because of rising production costs and diminished funding.

YPI was able to reinstate its festival of new works this year due to support from the Douglas Cramer Foundation and a leadership grant from Universal Studios, Inc. Also, according to Reynolds, "Angelina Fiordellisi, who runs the Cherry Lane Theatre and Cherry Lane Alternative, saw the need and gave us a home. Literally, she said, 'Here. Do some plays.'"

Not that it was quite that easy. YPI wants to ensure the budding playwrights' experience is one of professionalism, so it produces the festivals on Actors Equity Association Off-Broadway Mini-Contracts, rather than as showcases. Because of that, Reynolds said, the organization will spend "close to $39,000 in Equity salaries" for the run (and, of course, the rehearsal period, etc.). Not only that, but Equity measured the dressing rooms at the Cherry Lane Alternative and found them too small for a contract production. "We had to build new dressing rooms," Reynolds said, "but it's worth it."

The plays will be directed by Adobe Theatre artistic director Jeremy Dobrish; Richard Caliban, former artistic director of the Cucaracha Theatre; Beth Milles, the director of "God Said 'Ha!'" on Broadway; and Lynn Thomson, who directs the Brooklyn College Department of Dramaturgy and Theatrical Criticism (and is the dramaturg who sued the estate of Jonathan Larson, claiming she supplied uncredited contributions to his musical, "Rent"). Pat Dignan designed the lighting, Narelle Sissons designed the settings, Kitty Leech designed the costumes, and David Gilman designed the sound.

The acting ensemble consists of Jen Drohan, Ann Hu, Todd Lawson, Martin La Platney, Karen Tsen Lee, Brad Malow, Suzen Murakoshi, Carolann Page, Susan Pellegrino, and Erica Thomas.

The YPI festival will be performed Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7 pm, Saturday afternoons at 2 pm, and Sunday afternoons at 1 pm. The Cherry Lane Alternative is located at 38 Commerce St. Tickets are available by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.

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