by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & Y & lt;/span & ou could just stay home and watch CSI. Sensational crimes are a nice break from the routine at the office. Crime procedurals can be so reassuring: good triumphs, bad guys get caught.

Or you could get out of the house and sample the theatrical offerings at a festival of new plays. It's true, you never know what to expect, with local actors and directors presenting never-before-produced comedies and dramas by playwrights you've probably never heard of before.

But then there are selling points: The in-the-room immediacy of the emotions portrayed, for example. Playwrights Festival Forum offers opportunities to speak directly with the people who thought this stuff up (at the post-performance discussions) and even to vote for your favorites. (It's like American Idol on a very small scale.)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his weekend, the festival at Spokane Civic Theatre presents two staged-reading performances each of the winner and runner-up out of the 45 full-length scripts submitted this year: Lost Children, by Seattle's Thomas Pierce; and Skin Deep, by New York's Rich Orloff.

Pierce's play offers more than the predictable conflicts and seen-it-before characterizations of many TV dramas. But let Sandra Hosking describe it. (She's co-chair of this year's festival along with Bryan Harnetiaux and a playwright whose works have often been produced at PFF.) "Lost Children is a full-length drama about a group of American tourists stuck in a rural airport in China during the [Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak," Hosking says. "The travelers, who are prone to ethnocentricity, are unsure as to why they're being detained. The longer they sit, the more they turn on each other, accusing one another of inappropriate behavior, of exposing each other to SARS.

"In my opinion, the play is a great study of how people behave when they are afraid and thrust into a situation with a lot of unknown variables." Whitworth College's Brooke Kiener directs.

Skin Deep is a light comedy about some heavy topics: sex and morality. When a Middle American couple wind up owning a clothing-optional resort, they're compelled into dealing with a drag queen, a dominatrix and the long-simmering problems in their own marriage. Orloff proceeds by piling on the gags: The desk clerk cheerily informs callers that at the Lady Godiva Inn, people "sin wearing nothing but their skin." Think The Birdcage, but refocused on a nice, conservative married couple from Dayton, Ohio. The director is Juan Mas of North by Northwest Productions.

For the festival's second weekend (June 14-16), a quartet of one-act plays will be presented in fully staged productions. L.A. cops suffering from burnout will investigate multiple arsons. A useless lawyer will fail to mediate a dispute involving plagiarism between a novelist and a TV exec. Some late-night philosophizing will examine working with clay as a metaphor for self-transformation. And a businessman desperate to quit smoking within three days will encounter a smoking-cessation counselor with neuroses of her own. The playwrights hail from upstate New York, from the Seattle area, and even from Post Falls. Wes Deitrick, former artistic director at Interplayers, will direct two of the one-acts; the other two are being directed by Caryn Hoaglund of Actors Rep and by Brian Russo of Gonzaga's theater department.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & aving already made revisions during the rehearsal process, most of the writers will be in attendance, watching audience reactions and listening for where additional changes need to be made.

Hosking has been through the process at PFF several times herself. "As a playwright," she says, "I have always valued the thoughts and impressions of audience members, as well as my theater peers. What I most love to do is listen to them react and watch their faces as they watch the plays. It's always a surprise to hear them laugh at something I didn't know was funny, and it's sometimes painful when they don't react the way I want them to. I think it's that way for many writers."

Writers, directors, actors, playgoers, adjudicators -- there's a lively interaction going on at Playwrights Festival Forum, and it's not something you can experience by sitting at home and watching CSI.

As part of the Civic's 24th annual Playwrights Festival Forum, staged readings of Lost Children will be held on Friday-Saturday, June 8-9, at 8 pm, while readings of Skin Deep will be performed on Thursday, June 7, at 7:30 pm and on Saturday, June 9, at 2 pm. Tickets: $5. All four one-act plays -- "Wet Clay," "No Smoking," "The Mediation" and "So What's the Story, Enderman?" -- will be performed on Thursday, June 14, at 7:30 pm and on Friday-Saturday, June 15-16, at 8 pm. Tickets: $12. Visit or call 325-2507.

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Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.