The Samuel French OOB Festival
One Playwrights Journey
I still remember when I got notice. Flashing in my inbox one afternoon in May, I was told I would be a participant in the 39th Annual Samuel French OOB Festival, a yearly event in NYC that features thirty aspiring playwrights and their one act plays. The news was thrilling; I had submitted plays to the festival three years in a row. Every year came back a nay-say. By 2014, I had essentially written off my chances.
I had entered those three years in a row because the festival was a much-desired playwriting goal of mine, a milestone I hoped very much to meet. The festival offered its playwrights great opportunities: a fully staged production with Equity actors in an Off-Off Broadway venue; the chance to be published and licensed by Samuel French, a well-respected and long-standing dramatic publishing company; the chance to meet other playwrights and industry representatives; the chance to be seen.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the OOB (for Off-Off-Broadway) Festival. In honor of their now-long legacy of past winners and contributors, the producers of the festival have launched the 40/40 project, an initiative to produce forty productions of previous OOB works at various theaters around the country. “This year one of the biggest challenges for us is paying homage to an entire collection of winning plays,” says Casey McClain, co-artistic director, “The challenge is twofold: we have to find these new plays, and love and honor thy past plays.”
McClain and Amy Rose Marsh have been co-artistic directors of the festival since 2012, and their love of one-act plays is apparent. They recently took to the stage themselves, presenting a performance of The Winning Number by Sarah Brown from the 16th OOB series. The event was presented on the company stage in the New York Samuel French office.
Their passion for the plays they are producing causes little surprise. “There’s a welcoming and enthusiastic vibe among the festival coordinators,” says Nick Gandiello, a returning participant, and author of this year’s At The Finish. “They want to get to know you, and they want every play to succeed.”
They are not alone in the process. Numerous staff members and interns aid in the festival’s preparation and production which includes a lengthy selection process. With a grand total of 1,500 short plays entered for this year’s festival, it was the most competitive year in the festival’s history. Every script is given serious consideration, with each play receiving two to six reads by various adjudicators during an “extensive and exhaustive reading process.”
The festival’s long and rich history began with Bill Talbot, former managing editor of the company. “He wanted to entice new voices to Samuel French,” said Amy Rose Marsh. “Only one play was presented a new play award, which included publication.”
The festival has evolved tremendously over the years, and around its tenth year, it added a more transparent competition element. Six participants are now selected from a pool of thirty semi-finalists, with the winners printed in a collection licensed and published by Samuel French. (I was not one of the winners, but my name can be found on the title page for last year’s published volume.)
Over its forty years the festival has amassed an impressive collection of reputable alumni, including Theresa Rebeck, Steve Yockey, and Rachel Bonds. Many participants go on to have long lasting relationships with Samuel French, as well as dynamic careers in theater, screenwriting, and television.
My story, too, is an illustration of the beginning of a long-term relationship with Samuel French forged at the festival. I remember meeting Marsh, recognizing her immediately from the enthusiastic online videos she had posted about the festival, and eagerly, I introduced myself. Months later when a position opened up in the licensing department, I was able to use this connection to get my foot in the door. It turned out to be a great match—I had a lengthy background in theatrical customer service and knew a great deal about a great many plays. I never would have thought the festival would help get me a job, but I like to think that my writing led me to a place I never thought I would go.
This year’s pool of writers hails from all across the globe, representing a variety of dramatic genres and forms, ranging from short musicals to solo shows. Those I spoke to were thrilled to have been accepted into the festival, but many spoke of another thrilling opportunity it offered: the chance to meet those in their field.
Besides the coveted exposure and production experience that the OOB festival brings, perhaps its deeper value is in making opportunities for the participants to meet and share in an event together that can lead to future community building and collaborations. Indeed, my favorite part of the entire event was not my play’s performance (I was too wracked with nerves at that point) but the introductory reception held at the Sam French office. The festival seems very consciously aware of building in these communal events for participants throughout. Peers see each other’s work up on stage (as do industry professionals). They meet to talk shop over drinks afterwards. The relationship-building also extends to the festival organizers. For the duration of the festival, Sam French becomes the playwrights’ satellite home.
To toast to this journey, a prominent playwright speaks at the introductory reception, launching the event for the writers and cementing the mission of what it means to be a playwright. This year’s speaker will be Theresa Rebeck, OOB Festival alumna and author of numerous widely produced theatrical titles like Mauritus, Dead Accounts, Seminar, and the creator behind the hit NBC series Smash. My year it was Doug Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife, and his live interview left me breathless. He gave us a true insight into his writing process, how his process grew and changed over the years, and the importance of the Dramatist Guild in protecting the copyright held by playwrights and composers. I was riveted; things he said during this hour still stick with me daily. (One of these morsels was the idea that a play should be written like a recipe, so that one would know how to create an exact replication of it over and over again.)
Events of this nature, and the communal focus of the festival itself, make the OOB unique among New York festivals, where playwrights are often the sole producers of their own work and where access to resources like festival leaders can be scarce.
The OOB’s production process itself can be long and exhausting, beginning far before the festival launches in the first two weeks of August. Playwrights acting as producers for their own work must first connect with sponsorship opportunities, solidify casting choices and rehearsal spaces, and nail down final edits of their work. Amy Staats, a writeer and actress, is also taking the helm of her own project, a new venture that she has never done before. “I am producing with my friend Megan Hill, who is brilliant and a joy. We are solidifying the team, and are looking forward to starting rehearsals in July. Cathy Curtin (Orange Is The New Black), who did an earlier rendition of Throws of Love, is set to star, and we are very excited to give it another go.”
Producing short plays is always a tricky venture—mainly because alone they are not long enough to justify a full night of theater, yet are substantial enough to constitute a real commitment. Ms. Marsh echoed this sentiment and added, “There is a stigma against one acts as non-lucrative, but we really love that this festival gives the theater community an opportunity to recognize really fantastic writing and pieces that play with form and theatricality.”
I saw my slot in the festival as a chance to take my producer skills to the next level, an important part of a playwright’s career for artists who often work independently. I had some experience in the world of theatrical producing, but never to the extent that I reached in producing my OOB play. My director, Madeleine Parsigian, helped me in every step of the process, and I was able to connect first to Playwrights Theater of NJ, who graciously decided to sponsor my play after producing its first reading months prior. For the first time in my professional career, I was able to cast Equity actors. By the end of it all, I walked away with some great new tools under my belt.
Perhaps I am making the festival sound too good to be true so, I would like to share the following. As I stated earlier, I was not a winner of the festival. The festival is judged by four professionals in the industry (this year’s still to be announced) who specialize in one act plays. The decision making process is transparent and quick, with each night of the competition ending at a bar with the very public announcement of who advances to the next level. As clearly as I remember the excitement of being accepted into the festival, I remember the hideous sinking feeling I felt when I heard my play did not advance. This was months of preparation. This was (what I felt to be) blood, sweat, and tears on the page. (I had written a personal little play called Unkempt.) To add to this humiliation, the news was broken in front of my actors, my friends, and my dad, who had traveled specially to see me and my play. It stung. For sure. However, even for this, I have to say, I’m grateful. It was an important moment for me. I hear so many artists talk about the importance of rejection, and how finding the perseverance to continue on with one’s work even after a blow to the ego is vital to forging a professional career in the arts. That rejection toughened my skin. And to this day, I’m still writing. And while I wish for every play this year to advance to the next round, I hope that the artists like myself who do not advance find some level of comfort in this idea: the festival helped shape me for the better into the artist and professional I have become.
The Off-Off Broadway Festival runs August 4 – 9, 2015. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at oob.samuelfrench.com.
BECCA SCHLOSSBERG is playwright and performer based in Brooklyn. Her plays Just Like I Wanted and 3Boys are available for licensing. She has written many plays including Punches, Hands, Cal & Gray, Brightly Shone the Moon, Guidance, All We Are, and Glenhawk. This is her first contribution to the Brooklyn Rail. Follow her @Schlossbossfun for all Schlossberg-related fun.