Part of the Process 

Forward-thinking local theater company takes on new stage scripts

Forward-thinking local theater company takes on new stage scripts

NeST 2000 Festival

Presented by Mockingbird Public Theatre

Through June 17 at the Belcourt Theatre,

2102 Belcourt Ave.

$10; for tickets, call 242-6704.

Since its inception in 1994, Mockingbird Public Theatre has gained a reputation as Nashville’s most progressive theater company. In the past year, the company has mounted an original play, The Camellia Ball; it has presented a first-rate production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (in collaboration with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival); and it recently oversaw the somewhat controversial staging of Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency. Now Mockingbird concludes its schedule with the second annual New Southern Theatre Festival (NeST), taking place this week in the group’s new home at the recently refurbished Belcourt Theatre.

NeST is really for the theater junkies among us. The festival features staged readings of new, unproduced plays, with some of Nashville’s finest handling all the acting and directing chores. Mockingbird founder and artistic director David Alford, a Juilliard-trained actor, is hopeful that the warm response the festival received last year will continue apace.

”We had no idea what to expect from audiences last year,“ he says. ”We were expecting maybe 20 people a night. Well, on Saturday last year, we had to turn people away. We sold out a staged reading! I couldn’t believe it.“ One of the reasons for the event’s unexpected success, Alford explains, is that audience members were given the opportunity to vote for what they thought was the best script. ”We do have a panel that evaluates the plays. That’s half of the score. The other half comes from the audience’s vote. People really took ownership last year; they really wanted to have a voice.“

Indeed, this is an event in which everyone gets to have a stake—audience, theater company, and of course the playwright. ”That’s one reason we’re insistent on using professional actors,“ Alford says. ”We don’t want the writers to have any excuses when hearing their dialogue. We’re trying to take the plays as written and do the best job we can with them, so the writers will know what they need to do to further prepare the pieces for publication and/or production.“

The origins of NeST derive in part from Mockingbird’s growing reputation as a theater company. Alford and his colleagues have received a good number of play submissions over the last several years; most of them were not quite stageworthy, yet they merited consideration. ”We didn’t feel confident enough in the structure of the plays to mount them,“ he says, ”but we felt that they had promise. We decided to have some sort of festival where we could take some of the good stuff that we’d been submitted and give them staged readings.“

Criteria for submission to the festival are specific. Plays have to be unpublished and as yet unproduced by professional companies. In addition, the plays have to have some sort of Southern identity, whether through the writer, the setting, or the characters. A call for NeST submissions is advertised in local and national print media as well as on Mockingbird’s Web site, http://members.aol.com/wedoplays/mockingbird.html. The company received around 30 submissions last year, and this year the total more than doubled to 70.

”After an initial reading,“ Alford says, ”we culled the submissions down to about 15 or so. Then we gave the plays that we liked to another reader and got it down to about six. And then it became tough. We settled on the three finalists because we thought they were ambitious theatrically, which is something we look for in a new work.“ The three distinctly different scripts are Althea: She Went to Hell by John Barrow of Atlanta; Southern Discomfort by Randall Wilson of Nashville; and A Lovely Undertow by Peter Hardy, also of Atlanta.

Of the three, the most traditional in form is Althea, a wacky farce set in the world of televangelism. ”We thought it was funny and light,“ Alford says, ”and very specifically Southern, obviously. We liked the humor, and finding out that it’s based on the Greek comedy Alcestis by Euripides rather tweaked our interest.“ Althea will be directed by David Compton.

Alford himself will direct Southern Discomfort, a dark family drama set in Nashville and other Tennessee locales. ”The structure is very strange,“ he says. ”It’s four acts. The first act is half the play, and the other three acts are shorter, coming after an intermission. It appealed to me in the way it was presented, which is not at all standard. I guess I don’t want to say Southern Discomfort is surreal, but it certainly takes some very intensely theatrical turns.“

Surrealism is more rightly the province of A Lovely Undertow, a brooding tale concerning a mystery writer’s attempt to reconcile the suicide of an ex-lover. ”It has a dreamlike quality,“ Alford says. ”Staging it will be quite a challenge.“ Gifted Nashville actor-director Mark Cabus has been charged with that task.

The business of staged readings can be tricky and demands that the audience accept a completely different level of theatrical convention. Actors hold scripts, and directors read the stage directions. Settings consist of plain chairs, stools, or miscellaneous set pieces, but the idea is that the actors should be sitting the majority of the time. Such readings, Alford says, are ”supposed to reflect where a theater company might be after a week or so around the table.“

Which is not to say that the Mockingbird’s actors and directors won’t have put some time in before the curtain rises this week. ”We have three rehearsals for each play,“ Alford says. ”Since you have such a limited time in directing a staged reading, what you’re trying to do is get to the core of the subject matter as quickly as possible.“ Among the Nashville acting talent enlisted for this ambitious undertaking are Christopher Browne, Donna VanLiere, Martha Wilkinson, Candy Robins, Cecil Jones, and Bobby Wyckoff, as well as directors Alford, Cabus, and Compton, all three of whom pull double duty.

Each of the three plays will be performed twice this week, once on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, and then again on Saturday, before the festival winner is determined that evening. The festival kicked off this past Monday and Tuesday with a new event called the ”NeST Warmer,“ which featured original one-acts in development: Burnt Offerings by Nashville actor Jeremy Childs, and Willie Proudfit, a monologue adapted and performed by Alford, based on an excerpt from Robert Penn Warren’s novel Night Rider. Mockingbird associate artistic director René Copeland supervised the proceedings.

Heretofore, Mockingbird has been committed to presenting at least one new play every year as a part of its regular season. Will the NeST Festival be the proving ground where such plays can emerge? Says Alford: ”As the quality of the plays continues to improve and as we get more and more to choose from, we’re going to feel more comfortable making that commitment to the writers. I would love to be able to make that a part of the deal.“

In the meantime, Mockingbird Public Theatre is enjoying the pleasure of settling into a new ”nest“ of its own—the charming, historic Belcourt—while looking forward to the 2000-01 season. ”Our mission as a company,“ Alford says, ”is to nurture Southern artists who are interested in theater, and we’re going to continue to do that.“

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