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"Only four out of seven plays on Broadway last year were new. We are playwright poor in this country. We need new playwrights and we need them desperately," says Sidney Fortner, producer of the Gallery Players’ Black Box Series, which runs from May 31 through June 24.

Now in its fourth year, the Black Box Series, with performances at the Gallery Players theater at 199 14th St. in Park Slope, will include the world premieres of 20 one-act plays and readings of four full-length plays that are works in progress. The one-acts will be presented in groups of four boxes, or programs, and each box runs for four days. The readings for each play are on consecutive Saturdays in June.

"The purpose of the Black Box Series is to provide playwrights with the material and expertise necessary for putting their plays on stage," says Fortner. "The writers get feedback from the actors and the director, who act as a mirror."

Each September and November, Fortner advertises in Backstage magazine for original plays to be submitted. After making the selections, she works with writers and directors to "take out ambiguity and get consistent results" from the plays. Directors are chosen on the basis of their resumes. Fortner says she looks for good directors who have experience with new plays and have worked with writers.

The casting process begins in April. At the same time, the playwrights continue rewriting - sometimes up to a week before staging the works.

Joe Lauinger, a playwright and professor of dramatic literature at Sarah Lawrence College, has been participating in the Black Box Series since its inception in 1998. Last year the series presented his full-length "Mother’s Day," which was picked up by Manhattan’s Rattlestick Theater and will have its premiere at the Stanford Center for the Arts before being staged off-Broadway.

This year, Lauinger has contributed three one-act plays from a collection of six called "States of the Union." In each play a different man and woman meet in a different state.

"You Really Ought to Give Iowa a Try" takes its title from a line in Meredith Wilson’s "The Music Man." It is about a straight-laced loan officer in middle-America who is confronted by a homeless woman from the inner city. She has come to Iowa to obtain a loan because it is the center of America and she thinks it’s where to go to realize the American dream. In the end, says Lauinger, "[The loan officer] comes to realize that she’s right."

Lauinger took the title of "Nowhere Zen New Jersey" from Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl," and indeed the play is something of an existential cry, recounting the experiences of a couple who first can’t get off the New Jersey Turnpike, then can’t get out of their car.

"It’s a comedy about how New Jersey is a commuter land and a place of no real destination," Lauinger explains.

"Oregon Mist" comes straight from the Dictionary of American English, describing the rain and fog in that state. The play is about the encounter of a female painter and a male historian at the end of the Oregon Trail, now a historical site. They both talk about what they see, revealing the difference between art and history.

All three Lauinger one-acts are part of Box 2, which plays June 7 through 10.

John Watts says his one-act "Conversations With the Past" is about "a confrontation between individuals who meet in a run-down bar." In the play, a man returns to his old neighborhood trying to reconnect with his past. He meets the bar’s owner, a prostitute, a mentally challenged woman he grew up with and a local tough who comes into the bar looking for the prostitute - all of which sheds new light on the present and the past.

Watts’ "The Bookstore" is a romantic comedy about a bookstore owner and one of his customers who comes in looking for a book on Hollywood memorabilia. He escapes from life in books; she escapes from life in movies. Ultimately, they are very much alike, and the play resolves itself in a way Watts calls "acceptable for a romantic comedy."

Watts was also invited to submit a play for reading this year. "Summer Night in a Goldfish Bowl," takes place one summer night in 1959 and involves the relationship between two families, each on the front porch of their row house.

"Conversations with the Past" is in Box 1, playing May 31 through June 3, and "The Bookstore" is in Box 4 playing June 21 through June 24. "Summer Night in a Goldfish Bowl" plays on June 23.

Ken Javie is presenting his first play, a one-act called "Never Missed a Day," in Box 4. Patterned on his 10 years of working in an office, the tragi-comedy is about "five guys who get together to wish their retiring co-worker good luck," says Javie. "The party turns a little sour when all the buried secrets arise."

Staci Swedeen has two short pieces in Box 2. "Words Like a Wall" is a seven-minute monologue in which a woman tries to come to terms with her need to please people. "UPS/Next!" is a 15-minute comedy about the pitfalls two people encounter while trying to ship a package.

The playwrights find sustenance, nurturing and helpful criticism in the Black Box Series.

"[It] gave me the opportunity to try out new works in front of an audience and to work with a director," says Lauinger. "I can see practically how my experiments are working."

Watts, who has a master of fine arts degree in painting and owns a gift shop in Newark, began playwriting five years ago. He says the insight he’s gotten from working with the Black Box Series "has helped me see where I have gone off the mark and need to draw my ideas in and simplify, and bring the action to focus on the intent of the play."

For Javie, the knowledge that his play might be produced inspired him.

"I had the play in me," he says. "It was there waiting. The Black Box was the spark that told me to go and write it."

Working with the Black Box Series has also brought Javie from the solitary act of writing to collaboration with the director and actors to performance for an audience.

"Theater is not just sitting in a dark room writing," he says. "It’s a community act."

Or as Swedeen puts it, "You always learn something when you get to see your work in front of an audience. When you write for theater, you write for a reaction."

 

The Black Box Series opens May 31, playing Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm through June 24. Dialogue readings are Saturday at 4 pm. There will be a "playwright dialogue" after each Sunday matinee.

Tickets may be purchased at the box office the day of each performance and cost $15; $10 seniors and children under 12. A series pass is an additional $5. Saturday readings are free. The Gallery Players’ theater is located at 199 14th St. in Park Slope. For further information, call (718) 595-0547.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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