Turning up the heat

In so many artistic arenas, it’s an unexpected privilege to view behind-the-scenes work in progress. But it’s precisely this kind of beautifully organic essence that ignites the “Fireside Festival of New Work,” this weekend at Performance Network in Ann Arbor.

The second annual live theater festival features two weekends of manic-panic drama. Last weekend boasted the body-entangling eccentric art movement of Peter Sparling Dance Company; this weekend showcases staged readings from metro Detroit’s JET Theater, Meadow Brook Theater, Planet Ant and Heartlande Theater. But the spotlight won’t shine on the visiting production houses; instead, the focus will zoom in on six local Detroit playwrights. Actors and actresses will rise on stage with script in hand to present raw renditions of seldom-rehearsed plays — most of which will be done sans the dramatic elements of stage props or audio and lighting effects. In fact, some of the performances will even be entirely mimed.

What’s the reasoning behind this form of seemingly naive theater? Why would you want to “pay what you can” to see a handful of actors and actresses perform “off the cuff”? Because the series is a developing ground and collaborative theater community effort, with an emphasis on presenting promising new plays to professional theaters in the region.

Performance Network’s marketing director David Wolber explains that the idea came originally from an inventive and effective summer residency program at Heartlande Theater, which featured weekend readings. This was a great way to tie together the loose-ended folks of the theater biz and create a buzz for new local work.

At the Fireside Festival, production houses prospect new shows for their upcoming season and can easily contact the playwrights of their choice. Writers receive critiques from audience members; a mix of peers and patrons sound off about a play’s success or its fantastic mistakes. And houses that bring a show to the festival get to test-run the works they’ve been too shaky or sorry not to include in their busy season. And if by chance, for example, Performance Network decides it likes a new script (as was the case with Maggie Rose last year), lucky patrons get a chance to see the incredible transformation into a full-blown, pull-out-all-the-props adaptation.

When a play is optioned for professional production (as was the incredible instance in four of the 10 productions featured last year), this is most definitely live theater’s entertaining version of a DVD: Audience members who see both shows can get an insider’s view of the changes made from the playwright’s original script to a director or playhouse’s interpretation. Enlightened patrons can consider their own answers to questions such as these: Did any scenes change dramatically, and which way worked better? Does extravagant costuming, makeup, music or lighting affect mood? How did actor X’s replacement, actor Y, make or break a piece?

This weekend, the staged readings are sure to hit home where the bleeding heart is: Meadow Brook Theater presents a first-ever staged reading of Lovesick, a thriller written by Meadow Brook’s scenic designer Peter Hicks. Hamtramck’s Planet Ant theater finally gets to show off a script it’s held onto for quite some time: Anita Schmaltz’s Alice on Fire. This work, set in the spoofed rock club-bar complex of the Magic Box, is a surrealistic fable featuring a local band that breaks up a marriage. So it seems Detroit’s got some heartache.

To complement the reading showcase, Performance Network will also be running its full-scale workshop production of The Leaning Tower of Babel written by Joanna Hastings. Ignoring traditional plot parameters of space and time, the abstract piece is a symbolic story of trust and love in relationships, skinned by a twisted premise (you’ll see) of a man and woman looking to build an art center-theater.

So just wait — within one year you might hear of the “raging success” of at least one of these stories in the New York Times Sunday arts section. It’s a possibility that some local artists will take Detroit’s story to Broadway — but it’s a sure bet nobody will ever be able to take the Broadway out of metro Detroit.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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