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FutureFest, Dayton's New-Play Competition, Thrives

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If you love theater -- and I do -- then you have undoubtedly noticed that the entertainment genre has become so increasingly marginalized it's caused the weird and redundant phrase "live theater" to elbow its way into the language. The serious audience for theater, which doesn't mean it insists every entry must be serious, appears to be shrinking and aging and, well, shrinking because aging. Even in metropolises where theater once thrived -- primarily New York City and Chicago -- producers are worried that audiences may not be replenished as time marches on.

Nevertheless, there are places where theater remains a viable prospect, where companies boldly pop up and theater events brashly occur like flowers pushing through cement. I happen to know about one shining example. It occurs the last weekend of every July in Dayton, Ohio -- in Montgomery country, which apparently has the state's second largest unemployment contingent.

This surprise celebration of theater takes place in the Dayton Playhouse, an auditorium seating approximately 200 and set down in public gardens that couldn't be more beautiful representations of the English attitude towards landscaping. The courageous enterprise is called FutureFest, and its 19th incarnation -- FutureFest 2009 -- has just concluded.

The three-day affair is unique in that it's the only new-play competition run by a community theater in the United States. Yes, aside from one or two (often part-time) employees, every FutureFest is operated by volunteers. The actors, directors, designers and crew receive no reimbursement for their work, only the thrill of preparing and bringing off three full productions and three staged readings of six plays chosen from (this year) over 200 submissions by playwrights eager to get a gander at what they've wrought and perhaps pull down a $1000 check. The check's decided by a panel of (this year) four judges brought in from Manhattan and elsewhere.

Full disclosure: I'm one of those eager judges and have been for 14 or 15 of the years that the contest has taken place. That's how I qualify to report on the dedication the Dayton and surrounding area theater lovers express either by working in some capacity for the outfit or sitting in the audience to watch six plays over a 48-hour period or both. I know how welcoming the Dayton people are to the playwrights and the judges and how much they care about the quality of the works set before them.

The process, refined over the years (and perhaps needing further refinement), is this: After each play, the judges take the stage and -- once having listened to the playwright talk about how he or she came to write the just-seen opus -- expound on various topics like theme, characterization, dialogue, dramatic effect. Once the judges have mouthed off, audience members get to ask questions and express their yea or nay. When the formalities have ended, many attendees hang back to talk informally with the playwrights and judges.

Usually a good time is had by most, although over the years some playwrights have objected to criticism lodged, and certainly many of the plays offered were below recognizable standards. (A large reading committee slogs through the submissions--some years exceeding the 400 mark -- and perhaps at their daunting task they lack the sophistication of Manhattan agents.)

There's reason to believe that politics come into play, with some of the regular directors vying for the script they suspect will win. Furthermore, there's no use denying this audience reflects the country-wide theater audience in that the median age is surely more than 50, maybe sufficiently more. On the other hand, the caliber of the acting is unexpectedly high.

You can bet and be a winner that the Daytonians are looking to make a national name for themselves as a place where significant plays are first recognized. This state of happy affairs may have been slow to start, but it has started. The 2005 winner was Beau Willimon's Farragut North, which this year received a first-rate production at Manhattan's Atlantic Theater. It's currently playing in Los Angeles at the equally prestigious Geffen Playhouse and is also under development by George Clooney for a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Many swelled Dayton chests over that one.

For the record, the plays tapped this year were 20-year-old Chad Baker's A Snake That Eats Itself, Devon Boan's Darkroom, M. J. Feely's Night and Fog, Richard Manley's Quietus, Molly Smith Metzler's Carve, and Rosemary Frisino Toohey's G-Man. Feely was handed the $1000 check, but I'm going to skip out on a limb and say that at least three of these pieces will be heard from sooner rather than later -- given, of course, the couple of lucky breaks all scripts by unknowns need.

So the good news is that the fabulous invalid -- as theater has been termed for decades -- is alive, well and dancing a jig in Dayton.