Many playwrights nationwide were disappointed recently, and a few elated, as Source Festival, Washington, DC’s annual summertime splurge of brand new work, announced its 2012 line up. In its fifth year, Source Festival is a coveted production opportunity. A fully financed and fully mounted production of a previously unproduced ten-minute play is a rare opportunity, and in this era of budget-strapped theaters unwilling to risk ticket sales on new work, the festival is a magnet for playwrights. In response to an open call for ten-minute plays, Source received 670 submissions from across the country—for 18 spots.
Playwrights sometimes assume that to beat odds like these, you have to know someone. According to Source Festival Dramaturg Kathryn Coughlin, the ten-minute play selection process is too rigorous for connections to play a decisive role. Source uses more than a hundred volunteer readers to comb through the voluminous submissions of ten-minute plays. While the playwrights’ names are on the scripts—the process isn’t blind—the readers are knowledgeable about and involved in theater to varying degrees, rendering name recognition a sketchy affair. Armed with a training manual spelling out Source’s mission, aesthetic, and goals and the shared scoring scale, two different readers read each play, assign it a score on a scale of 1 to 10, and mark yes or no, as to whether or not they would like to see it in the festival. The readers also write a summary of the play and include a commentary. The information is then compiled and broken down on a huge spreadsheet.
“During the first conversation,” Coughlin explains, “when we narrowed the plays to the top 100 or so, we looked at and considered all the plays that had two yeses, one yes and one no, as well all the plays that scored a combined score of 10 and above. Of course many of the plays that moved on received higher scores and more yeses but the commentary and summaries played a large role in our deciding which plays struck us as having potential, even if they didn’t score above a 16 and 2 yeses.” For example, she points out, “if one play got a 9 and a 1 and a yes and a no, that might be a really great play that might have rubbed that second reader the wrong way; someone took a huge risk and it didn’t pay off for one reader but really paid off for another. . . . There were hours and hours put into making sure some great play didn’t fall through.”
The 100 or so remaining plays were again read by two readers, as well as all six of the festival’s staff of producers and dramaturgs. “So by the end,” Couglin explains, “at least 10 people had read the top 100 or so scripts.” Narrowing the number down to 18 was a process of more reading, more discussion, and more deliberating.
A common thread among weaker plays was that they tended to be gimmicky or skit-like, Coughlin says, with a shock at the end or a huge secret revealed. “I want to be reminded of what I love about the theater. I want a small story with big implications, not a big story with small implications. . . . A lot of plays try to be really funny in ten minutes. You can tell a joke quickly. I still want it to be about something. There should be some unanswered questions at the end that will allow you to digest and think about it.”
Playwrights who beat the odds had a fresh idea or a fresh voice. The plays selected represent a variety of different styles—Source purposely wanted to have a wide range of plays in the festival, to show what’s out there. At the festival, which runs three weeks and opens June 8, audiences will be able to see three evening’s worth of ten-minute plays—six thematically linked plays in each performance. “You won’t like all six,” Couglin guesses, simply because of the variety of styles and voices. But challenging the audience is part of the point. “Hopefully,” Coughlin says, “people will engage with the festival as an entire dialogue and connect with something.”