by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & 25-year tradition at Spokane Civic Theatre is ending. At least it's going out strong. The Civic will celebrate 25 years of hosting its showcase of new plays, the Playwrights Festival Forum, this year, with a half-dozen playlets shown on each of six nights, and with the added attraction of a veteran actress presenting workshops and a one-woman show. But then it will be no more.
The Civic's playwright in residence, Bryan Harnetiaux, says that he's saddened but not bitter about the decision; he'll continue to work at the Civic with staged readings and new play development. The Civic will lose its distinction of being one of the very few community theaters in the nation to have a festival of new plays, but it has added a second playwright in residence and will continue promoting new scripts, though in a different and more limited way. Harnetiaux, one of the founders of PFF and its spearhead for many years, found out about the decision to terminate the festival only after the Civic's board had voted on the matter; on a more hopeful note, he's receiving inquiries from potential sponsors about carrying the festival's ideas forward in some fashion next year.
All in all, then, a mixed bag: loss and gain both. In the meantime, there are the highlights of the 25th festival to consider. Six 15-minute plays will be presented on each of six nights (through June 14). The playwrights include Harnetiaux, Sandra Hosking (now the Civic's second playwright in residence) and three other local writers, along with one entrant from Toronto. Four directors, including Hosking, will oversee the half-dozen plays.
As usual, they offer variety: A young man deals with personal loss. A scribe has to record the blather of a pontificating oracle. Hamlet gets workshopped to death. Stuck at a lousy table in a restaurant, a couple have to confront the people in the alley out back. A rock-star wanna-be gets less than his allotted 15 minutes of fame. A guy has to choose between a mediocre angel and an alluring demon.
Fifteen actors will float through the evening -- several of them in multiple roles, which provides audiences with the fun of seeing dual sides of the same person. Max Nightser, for example, will play three roles -- from the grieving young man to the rock-star wanna-be to Will Shakespeare himself.
Next weekend, the festival will conclude with actress Megan Cole conducting workshops for actors (on how to audition and how to get along with writers) and then performing her one-woman show, "The Wonder of It All."
Because this is its final year, however, the entire two-week presentation takes on a bittersweet mood.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "I & lt;/span & wish this hadn't come out," Harnetiaux says. (The cancellation of PFF was first reported on May 20 at stagethrust.blogspot.com.) "Now it all seems lame-duck. I wanted to let this festival play out and end strong."
Voicing a common theme, Harnetiaux points to the distinctiveness of Playwrights Festival Forum. "I don't know of any community theater that holds such a festival. This festival was unique," he says.
"There are so few places for playwrights to present scripts that are not overwhelming in terms of the size of the project," but which are "fine to do in a backwater festival like this one," says Harnetiaux, who contributed "about eight" plays to the festival over its 25-year run.
"I grieve for the writers," he adds. "There are so many playwrights who are begging to get their work done -- who don't even know [yet] if they are a playwright." New play festivals help writers experience how creating a play is a collaborative -- not solitary -- process.
"You have to measure your own fragility," Harnetiaux says. "I knew some who didn't have the constitution for it -- you're so vulnerable, and it's so immediate.
"A short story writer or a novelist will never know if his book is thrown into the wall. But in the theater, when you have dead silence, or people leaving ... yeah, that's tough.
"I don't feel any bitterness at the end, just sadness," Harnetiaux says. "I accept some responsibility for it. It fell of its own weight."
Harnetiaux says that he is "still processing" the fact that he was not consulted before the Civic terminated its new-play festival.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & att Harget has already processed it. Harget has been a board member at the Civic for six years and has been involved with Playwrights Festival Forum "almost every year since 2000"; as in several previous years, one of his scripts is being produced this year at PFF.
He says that prior to an early-May board meeting, no one told him that the termination of PFF was going to be discussed. "I was in the theater auditioning actors for Playwrights Festival Forum while the board was [downstairs] voting to end it," says Harget. He has decided to resign from the Civic's board.
For her part, Yvonne A.K. Johnson, the Civic's executive artistic director, says that "after three years of tracking and reporting on the progress of and revamping PFF, the board of directors unanimously decided 6-0 (out of seven members) that it was time to take PFF in a different direction. Mr. Harget was not at the regularly scheduled April meeting, and, because he has had to miss the majority of board meetings throughout the season, his absence was not considered unusual. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of support for PFF over the past four seasons from patrons and audiences, directors, actors and front-of-house volunteers."
Johnson notes that "revenue for the festival averages less than $1,800 annually in ticket sales and festival entry registrations, at a financial loss to the theater." Harget counters that "the Civic's budget continued to list $2,000 for PFF," and that "often, directors put their small stipend back into props or costumes for their shows. Actors often did the same. It was very much a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland kind of thing, which was the charm of the festival.
"The loss of PFF is an artistic loss for Spokane," Harget says. "It was a unique event among community theaters and offered an opportunity to see shows never before seen in any other theater."
A difficult artistic and business decision, then; some resentment over perceived injustice; disagreements over the particulars of how the decision was made -- fingers are always pointed when a tradition comes to an end. But Harnetiaux, doing the post-mortem, also points out the responsibility of community members to support the local arts -- and of the local arts' need to remain responsive.
"Spokane is not a theater town," he says. "So new plays are a tough sell here. I had 10,000 hockey fans walking past my doors every night, and I just needed one out of a hundred to buy a ticket and keep the doors open.
"I've had to claw my way for audiences. There are people in this town -- people who I have known all my life -- who have never come to see one of my plays. Yet they'll ask me in the elevator, 'How's your new play?' It's enough to drive you nuts.
"But the Civic, against all the odds, has made this work for 25 years."
Harnetiaux has gotten feelers from two sources who are looking into continuing the festival, albeit not under the Civic's sponsorship. "I am hopeful," he says, "that it may continue in another life."
Playwrights Festival Forum at Spokane Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard St., on Thursdays, June 5 and June 12, at 7:30 pm, and on Fridays-Saturdays, June 6-7 and June 13-14, at 8 pm. Tickets: $14. Actress Megan Cole will present two free workshops on Saturday, June 14 -- an audition workshop for actors from 9 am-noon, and "Playwrights and Actors Can Be Friends" from 2-5 pm. Must preregister. Cole will perform her one-woman show, "The Wonder of It All," on Sunday, June 15, at 1 pm. Tickets: $14. Visit www.spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507.
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