"The art of the Phoenix Theatre starts here, starts tonight," said producing director Bryan Fonseca at their annual Pitch Night last Wednesday as staff distributed a rating sheet to each of the more than thirty board members, directors, actors, designers, playwrights and other stakeholders (plus this NUVO writer) seated on and around the stage in the Frank and Katrina Basile underground space.
The rating sheet listed nineteen plays. Fonseca said that all nineteen fit the theatre's mission and had been thoroughly vetted from the hundreds of contemporary plays that he and his readers had read, heard, and/or seen over the past year. "I would be happy to produce any of these plays," he said.
The forthcoming season has slots for only ten. "We're already outproducing every organization in town and even we have a limit," Fonseca said. One slot is already taken by the annual A Very Phoenix Xmas variety show, which continues to be an audience favorite.
Each of the contenders would be presented as a carefully prepared pitch by someone specifically chosen by Fonseca to give the play its best shot at being selected. Each pitch would be strictly limited to five minutes. During the pitch, the presenter would try to describe the world of the play and then give his or her observations based on a set of prompts Fonseca had given them.
"Let these stories wash over you," Fonseca instructed us. "Then become a focus group and rate your interest in each play." The rating sheet said, "Rate each play 1-5, 1 being you have no interest in seeing it produced at the Phoenix, and 5 being you can't wait to see it announced for the 2014-15 season."
Fonseca told us not to compare the plays to each other but to mark our interest in each play as we heard about it. He also told us not to worry about indicating low interest. That would just let him know that "we have an extra-special challenge to find the market if we choose to do that play."
He also told us not to worry about staging. The plays that had made it to this point were do-able for the Phoenix. "Concentrate on the stories of the plays," Fonseca said.
We also weren't supposed to worry about balancing the season in terms of content, costs, which stage it would be on, etc. Fonseca would make all of those final decisions.
Fonseca often added an observation or two of his own after each pitch. Then there was a minute or two for questions and/or observations from the audience. Everyone shared their knowledge of the playwrights' other work and their experiences of the contenders in other cities — e.g., New York, Chicago, Seattle — and in venues such as the National New Play Network's showcase and the Humana Festival.
My rating sheet at the end of the night had seven "5"s on it and the rest "4"s and "3"s. I appreciated getting to hear about all nineteen contenders.
Next Fonseca will narrow the list from nineteen to twelve or thirteen and then check availability. He plans to announce the new season by July 4th.
Below are the 19 plays presented at Pitch Night 2014:
• Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tollins
• Soups, Stews and Casseroles by Rebecca Gilman
• The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh
• River City by Diana Grisanti
• Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea by Nathan Davis
• Tails of Wasps by Stephanie Timm
• No Quarter by Polly Stenham
• Old Jews Telling Jokes by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent
• Clark Gable Slept Here by Michael McKeever
• Acid Dolphin Experiment by Tim Brickley and Tom Horan
• The Animals by Kirk Lynn
• Tigers Be Still by Kim Rosenstock
• Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play by Anne Washburn
• Branch Rickey
• In a Word by Lauren Yee
• The Flick by Annie Baker
• Case Valentina by Harvey Fierstein
• American Idiot, based on the music of Green Day
• The Will by Sandra Seaton