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North Carolina Playwrights Alliance Post Mortem: Taylor Howard Wins First N.C. PLAY Slam

September 11, 2003 - Carrboro, NC:


Readers of Robert's Reviews may not be aware of this, but I am a playwright first, a critic second. While each activity may well utilize an opposite section of gray matter, I don't think they're mutually exclusive; to cite a single example, Bernard Shaw was a critic long before his plays were first performed. As a playwright, I often wish there were a greater number of theater critics with backgrounds in writing plays, and performing in them. There may be a grain of truth in the old "those who can't do, teach" adage.

I am also a member of a collective I believe is one of the most important in the state. Under the indefatigable guidance of June Guralnick, the North Carolina Playwrights Alliance (NCPA) is doing more to promote the work of Tarheel dramatists than any other association. (Personal aside: The North Carolina Writers Network occasionally includes us in their activities, but only occasionally.)

Which brings me to Slam It!, the first-ever play slam in the state, which took place last Saturday evening at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, and in which I was a participant. Organized by Lynden Harris, director of Theatre Orange (and a playwright herself), the slam gave 14 North Carolina playwrights an opportunity to see a short (1-3 minute) sample of their work performed for an appreciativeand surprisingly largeaudience, which then rated each piece. From those tallies, five playwrights were selected to have an additional scene performed. A second audience vote winnowed those finalists down to one. (The evening's host, Greg Hohn, stood by with stopwatch and service desk bellthe Slam It! equivalent of a gong.)

I was, admittedly, a bit dubious of the enterprise. After all, I am on record, in these pages, as bearing a prejudice against 10-minute plays, and a three-minute exercise seemed even less apt. Then, a few days before the event, I heard something that set my teeth on edge.

More than any other emotion, it is anger that most informs my work as a dramatist. (I'm hardly alone in this; Larry Gelbart thinks of himself as having a motor perpetually "stuck in Angry.") What I heard that sparked me was a segment of the recent public radio series Out Right Radio, a piece on gay street kids. I was moved enough by their stories, and angry enough about their circumstances, to sit down and compose a monologue from the point of view of a teenager living by his wits, and his sexuality, on the mean streets of a large city.

I had written a three-minute play.

I sent the piece off to Lynden, who advised me to have a second at the ready in case my work made it into the finals. She also noted that many of the participating writers were culling their pieces from larger works. I combed through my work, searching for something suitable.

A word here about the way my brain works, or rather, doesn't. I'm the type who reads the directions only after he's assembled the cabinet incorrectly. Had I read the slam instructions more carefully, I would have realized that what was asked for was not a three-minute piece, but a 1-3 minute piece. The first draft of what I eventually called "The License Number" was two minutes. Had I not padded it out to three, I would not have had to trim it back down again Saturday night and the splendid Chris Salazar, who performed it, might have gotten through it without being "gonged" before the end. Similarly, if I'd taken more time, I might have realized that the second piece need not, like the first, be a monologue, but a scene from a longer work.

In any case, I took a 25-minute monologue called "Unreliable Witness," which Raleigh Ensemble Players produced a decade ago, pasted the end of it to the beginning, gutted the rest, and asked my friend Chrystal Bartlett to perform it, should we get the chance. (In the event, she was able to read my work, and that of another playwright; David Roth needed a Jewish mother, and Chrystal pulled an Elaine May from her seemingly endless bag of thespic tricks, so my gain was David's as well.)

I was fortunate enough to be a finalist Saturday night. I didn't "win"that honor belonged to Taylor Howard, whose splendid "Looking for Grace" it was my misfortune to vie againstbut I'm enormously grateful for the experience. I watched two gifted actors perform my work in front of an audience, which is the only real validation a playwright ever gets, and seldom at that. More to the point, I saw and enjoyed exceptional work by others, and all of us benefited from the exposure, whether we "won" or not.

For the record, the finalists were Annie Taft, David Roth, John Middlesworth, Taylor Howard, and yours truly. Personally, I'd like to have had Nathan Ross Freeman and Iris Hall in that company as well. The former's piece (from Hannah Elias) had exceptionally vivid characters, beautifully observed dialogue, and the promise of great richness to come. The latter's monologue, the wonderfully titled "Big Butt," was an alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking tour through the teenaged angst of an African-American adolescent tortured by her small backside. This piece did what all great theater strives for, and seldom achieves: it took us places we'd never been and showed us something we'd never seen. American writers do not explore often enough the effect on self-image of that gap between what is considered desirable by one's society and the reality of one's own assets.

David Roth's pieces I thought funny, cogent, and often frighteningly direct, and John Middlesworth's theater-rat ramble "The Audition" had a grace and an affinity for language that struck me as singular. Some of the work on hand Saturday night showed too great an external influence, but Middlesworth's voice is uniquely his own.

Our overall "winner," Taylor Howard, is a prodigious talent. I confess that his first piece, "24 Hour Donut," despite an appealingly expansive verbosity, felt a tick too thin and a shade too Mametian. But the second, "Looking for Grace," owed nothing to anyone and required no apology. I'm not quite certain just how one would stage the excerpt we were treated to, which involved two people arguing through the gap in a chain-locked motel room door. But with writing this sharp, expressive, and, yes, poetic in its fulsome detail and its inexorable "build," I suspect that's a minor consideration.

Thanks, June, for the prod. Thanks, Lynden, for the night. Thanks, ArtsCenter, for the forum. And thanks, fellow playwrights, for the greatest gift of all: the chance to admire your talent.

Editor's Note: For more information on the North Carolina Playwrights Alliance, visit the NCPA web site at http://www.ncplaywrightsalliance.org/. For more information on The North Carolina Writers Network, visit the NCWN web site at http://www.ncwriters.org/.