The Dayton Playhouse
The Dayton Playhouse
DAYTON, OHIO: Sob sisters and brothers moaning about the fabulous invaliding of theater in our time would wipe away their tears quickly were they transported to this city.

The reason is FutureFest, the country's only new-play contest run by a community playhouse: the city-funded Dayton Playhouse, to be exact. Since 1991, when local theater impresario John Riley had a bright idea, six new plays have been presented over the course of a three-day weekend. Or over a two-day weekend, as happened this year with FutureFest 2000. That's because, this time out, frantic rescheduling had to be done when the five judges brought from outside the city to name a winner were delayed en route. Nothing could get underway until they arrived on Saturday, July 29, and so a normally intense program was intensified even further.

I happen to know about enjoying--as well as weathering--FutureFest because, for three out of the 10 years it has taken place, I have been one of those judges. Or "adjudicators," as the on-site officials like to call visiting observers. I can attest that when it comes to watching a large group of people dedicate themselves to theater for the sheer love of the art form, FutureFest can't be beat.

Jesse Williams and Anne Peschin Suzanne Bradbeer's Full Bloom
Jesse Williams and Anne Pesch
in Suzanne Bradbeer's Full Bloom
This year's winner--who took home a $1,000 check, a plaque and a T-shirt--is Suzanne Bradbeer. Her impressionistic play Full Bloom follows 16-year-old Manhattan schoolgirl Phoebe Harris during the few eventful weeks that precede her hospitalization for self-mutilation. A poetic, searching girl, she's clearly meant to be Bradbeer's transplant of J. D. Salinger's Phoebe Caulfield to the present day.

For the record, Bradbeer won in a field that included Eva's Piano by Gail Priest, about a woman learning to go on with her life after her mother dies and after a longtime romance bites the dust; Matchpoint by Alan Brody, a look at three tennis players--a married couple and their onetime protégé--sorting out their complicated past at an uneasy reunion; Castle K by Joe DiMiceli, in which inmates of a Russian gulag circa 1980 fight to keep their spirits up while events conspire against them; Call of the Mockingbird by Alan Bomar Jones, an elaboration on what might have happened to some well-loved fictional characters after the bittersweet ending of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; and Alan Arkin's Feet by Chris Stancich, wherein the son of a movie bit player recalls his approach-avoidance relationship with the old man.

The FutureFest adjudicators (left to right):David Finkle, Helen Sneed, Eleanor Speert,Steve Samuels, and Peter Filichia
The FutureFest adjudicators (left to right):
David Finkle, Helen Sneed, Eleanor Speert,
Steve Samuels, and Peter Filichia
Also for the record, the adjudicators who gave their opinions freely--often enlightening the attentive audience about playwriting and production, often being enlightened by that audience--included, in addition to myself, theater professionals Helen Sneed, Eleanor Speert, Peter Filichia, and Steve Samuels.

While presentation of the plays--three in full productions, three in staged readings--is the weekend's focus, the real story of FutureFest lies in the people putting it on. These include a few hundred Dayton residents who devote their time to reading the plays and sorting out the submissions (219 this year), to directing and acting in them, and to providing every type of support service.

At this year's awards ceremony, presided over by FutureFest co-chairs Debra Straus and Keith Wyatt, play reading committee head Nancy Campbell noted that the scripts considered for FutureFest 2000 required 1,097 readings over something like 2,600 hours. And that's just the time logged by the preliminary readers, who start their work every year at the end of September. The final selection committee donated hundreds more perusing hours.

The local triumph of FutureFest is also due to a faithful audience, a larger percentage of them "graying" than the committee would ideally wish to see. In a 220-seat house, there is rarely an empty seat. Many ticket-buyers put their requests in early to make certain they'll be accommodated. And, once they are, they rarely remain reticent about what they see. Although the fans usually couch criticism in polite terms--this is gentle Dayton, after all--they sound off both in the auditorium and outside of it during breaks between shows. It's not at all uncommon for a socializing adjudicator to be told how right (or wrong) he is about a certain play.

FutureFest isn't glitch-free. Administrated for many years by Tina McPhearson, the yearly event is currently overseen by no hired staff. Where a contingent of three once had a $14,000 budget with which to meet demands under the board of directors' supervision, the board now finds itself responsible for every detail. Apparently, this situation doesn't sit well with the city governors--foremost among them Jan Geden, only a year in office as Director of Recreation and Parks. And although a new operating office is urgently needed, the board may have to find one without benefit of additional city funding. A ticklish development.

Nevertheless, co-chairs Straus and Wyatt are determined that FutureFest 2001 will take place. Playwrights should submit previously unproduced scripts to: FutureFest 2001, Dayton Playhouse, 1301 East Siebenthaler Avenue, Dayton, Ohio 45414.