Most playwrights don’t get the chance to stage their unfinished works in front of a paying audience. But that’s the point of the METLab Plays in Progress festival, an under-the-radar event held annually at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
“Hearing your words read aloud in a setting like this, with professional actors, is invaluable and rare,” said organizer J.D. Sivert, whose own play, “No, Virginia,” is being staged at the festival this year. “Playwriting is a very lonely and solitary activity, and you don’t always know how successful you’re going to be.”
It’s a lesson he learned under David White, a professor of theater and playwriting at Towson University. White organized an informal script-writing club attended by Sivert and some of his classmates, who later pitched the idea to the Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
The concept is simple. Every year, organizers screen 20 or 30 submissions from playwrights across the mid-Atlantic, who submit unfinished drafts of their work. A committee selects a handful of plays “that are definitely still in development, but have potential,” added Steve Custer, a co-organizer helming the festival this year.
Each play is staged twice, roughly a week apart. After both readings, audience members get a chance to share their opinions on the unfinished work, guided by a dramaturg who consults with the playwrights.
“So, I’m hearing what the audience liked, what they didn’t like, what they responded to,” Sivert said. “I then take that feedback and I read it over, I think about what’s not working, and the conversation goes into my edits.”
The extent of the changes really depends on the development of the play. Last year, Sivert said, he included a script that was nearly complete by the time it was staged at the festival. The playwright cut a few lines, but the audience could barely tell it had changed between the first and second reading. Another year, a script lost 50 pages and three whole characters.
“It’s fun because sometimes we see very slight changes from week to week and sometimes we see very dramatic changes,” Sivert said. “And the audience gets an inside look at the playwriting process.”
The festival started five years ago, but organizers have just started noticing an uptick in submissions from Frederick-based playwrights. The three 2019 finalists include Sivert — who moved from Ellicott City to Frederick for his fiancée, Caitlyn Joy — and Lydia Hadfield, another writer and actor who grew up near Point of Rocks.
The local submissions have led to a range of plays that Custer thinks will be especially resonant for Frederick audiences. That includes Hadfield’s play, “The Peacock Lady,” about a family hoping to start a Civil War-themed diner in the fictional town of Francis.
“The building they want for the restaurant is a blighted property owned by this character who has kind of a notorious — and mysterious — reputation in the community,” Hadfield said. “But it turns out they’re connected through a family secret that comes out in the play.”
Blighted properties and a mysterious landlady remind Custer of Duk Hee Ro and the notorious Asiana building — long a source of local frustration and scrutiny.
“It feels very local to me, and I think that’s something the audience will really respond to,” he said.
The other selections play on topical issues, from the #MeToo movement and gun violence to religion and family. Playwright Taylor Leigh Lamb was selected for her script, “You Too?,” with a heroine who finds her feminist ideals questioned when a woman accuses one of her loved ones of sexual assault. Sivert was inspired to write the Christmas comedy “No, Virginia” by his own family’s unfortunate experience with a hired Santa Claus.
“It was a guy who, I believe, actually told my mother to shut up,” he said. “And that inspired me to write the story of a mother who is trying to throw a holiday party for her daughter and ends up with more Santas than she bargained for.”
“It’s basically a farce,” Sivert added. “But a farce that I hope also has some sweetness to it.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters