The Huntington Theatre Company reboots its free Breaking Ground festival next week with readings of five new plays, any of which you might see later in a full production.
“Readings are very useful for producers in terms of just getting to know the artists a little better and getting to know their work a little better,” says Lisa Timmel, the Huntington’s director of new work. “There’s a lot we know from reading a play, but there’s always more to learn, especially when you’ve got actors in the room.”
Of course, the main reason for the readings is to give playwrights a chance to hear their scripts read as part of their development. Three of this year’s works are by Huntington Playwriting Fellows: Lenelle Moïse and Lila Rose Kaplan from the 2012-14 cohort, and Ronan Noone from 2003-05. For them the festival can function as an extension of the fellowship program, which includes biweekly meetings with the other fellows and an ongoing relationship with the theater.
“I’m someone who writes with my ear,” says Moïse, who grew up in Cambridge and is the former poet laureate of Northampton, where she lives. “I’m always listening for the musicality and the rhythms of dialogue, and it feels great when I get to have actors play the music that I’ve written on the page.”
Her “Merit” (Jan. 30, 7:30 p.m.) is about a young fiction writer who’s the only student of color in a prestigious graduate writing program in Vermont and becomes involved with a distinguished professor. It sounds heavy and serious — counterpoint, perhaps, to a certain David Mamet drama?
“Mamet's ‘Oleanna’ is certainly a play I had in mind when I was creating this,” she says. “It’s a black feminist response to that.” But heavy? Serious? Uh, no.
“I hope we’re all laughing,” Moïse says. “As a person, as a playwright, I’m always interested in having a difficult conversation with a lot of joy. I think it’s my responsibility, when I’m making theater, to entertain. So even though we’re talking about really heavy class, race explorations, whether it’s appropriate to be in a relationship that has power struggles, I just want to crack up about it.”
The other two works in the Huntington festival are by outside playwrights, Susan Bernfield and Tanya Barfield. Timmel says a reading is “a really great way to introduce someone to the family” without setting expectations too high.
Bernfield’s “Tanya in the Getaway Van” (Feb. 1, 2 p.m.) looks at a liberated mother and her adolescent daughter in the 1970s, then jumps forward to see how the daughter is handling that legacy. “I’m really trying to hear it more and get it out there more and feel like it’s part of the conversation, and this is a huge opportunity for that, in a city where I haven’t worked before,” Bernfield says.
New York-based Bernfield has already had a couple of readings of the play, and the same director and lead actor will be featured here. They plan to get a lot of work done, she says.
“There was an ending, and I feel like it’s not quite there yet,” she says. “Actually my plan is to write three alternate endings, and in rehearsal we can figure out which one to present and see if I’ve made any progress.”
As for the other plays, Hillary Clinton meets Moliere in Kaplan’s “Home of the Brave” (Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m.), as a female presidential candidate’s family gathers for Christmas in a comedy inspired by “Tartuffe.” Noone’s “The Second Girl” (Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.) takes us into the kitchen of the Tyrone family from Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” exploring the lives of their Irish immigrant servant girls and chauffeur. And Barfield’s “Bright Half Life” (Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m.) tells the “kaleidoscopic love story” of Erika and Vicky over a quarter-century.
Although there’s no formal theme to the festival, there is a common thread, Timmel says.
“The main characters are women, and [the plays] deal not strictly with women’s issues but they all seem to be contemplating some of the complications of gender,” says Timmel.
Eight different Breaking Ground plays by fellows and outside writers have gotten full productions from the Huntington in the last decade, including “Sonia Flew” by Melinda Lopez and “Mauritius” by Theresa Rebeck. The festival ran from 2004-09, then was put on hold while Breaking Ground remained as the umbrella title for readings. The weekend festival format returned this year in large part because stand-alone readings tended to get a little lost in the shuffle of the season, Timmel says.
The readings will be bare bones, with the cast at music stands or even sitting. “Sometimes there’s a request for things like lights or music, but I haven’t heard any noise about that this year,” Timmel says, “and I usually say no to all of that.”
That’s because the reading format has its own particular benefits, she says: “I really believe in that process, when you use your ears.”
Moïse enthusiastically endorses that idea. “Part of it is that I’m Haitian and I come from a culture that for a very long time had a strictly spoken language,” she says. “I really pay attention to cadence and the dynamics of the voice as much as I pay attention to what the person is saying.”
That’s just part of the reason she’s looking forward to the festival.
“Playwriting can be so isolating,” she says, laughing. “And one of the reasons I’m a playwright is that I love people, I love how people talk and how they move and what their faces are revealing, and I love watching them and trying to figure out what makes them tick and watching their tics. And when I’m writing I’m just sitting at my desk, and the only rhythm I’m listening to is my fingers typing. So play readings are putting the work back into bodies and voices, and that’s really exciting to me.”