Smartly-penned “Summer on Fire” mingles politics and passion

In the new play “Summer on Fire,” the character of Gwynn Simmons is a young and talented singer/songwriter who gets jitters before her first big tour.  She confides in an unlikely ally, conservative talk show host Frank Flanagan, who says, “Performance anxiety—people think only guys get it but everybody gets it.  You want success but when opportunity knocks, you panic and you choke.  Don’t worry.  It’ll pass.”

So art imitates life.  Emerging artists of all kinds have similar struggles: finding time to create, managing a full-time day job, making art, marketing that art and hopefully getting discovered. For up-and-coming American playwrights and artists, Actor Theatre’s nuVoices festival gives much-needed exposure and critical support.

New York-based Mike Bencivenga wrote “Summer on Fire,” a comedy about sexual misconduct, political turmoil, burgeoning fame, elusive justice and lasting love.  In addition to “Summer on Fire” the four-day festival will feature three other finalists: “Still” by Jen Silverman, “Narrow Daylight” by Sevan Kaloustian Greene and “Scene of Dreams Bar and Grill Nola” by James Marlow.

There will be two staged readings of each play Thursday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 12, at Actor’s Theatre.  For more information, including scheduling and tickets go to www.actorstheatrechar

According to Matt Cosper who will direct “Summer on Fire,” “It’s a ‘worlds colliding’ story,” about a conservative media personality who has unknowingly rented out his summer home to Gwynn and Maxie, a lesbian couple on vacation.  When Frank Flanagan comes home early to throw a big party with his ex-wife, the result is, as Cosper puts it, “a smart and articulate language-based comedy with a vein of farce.”

“I wanted to make a play that both sides of the political divide could laugh at,” Bencivenga said.  “I set the story in the summer of 2008 during the heated presidential campaign with the hope that we can see how far (and not so far) we’ve come.”

“It’s very fair-minded,” Cosper said. “Both sides are given good representation.”

The inaugural nuVoices festival was opened to non-musical, full-length plays that were not previously published or produced.  “We hoped for 75 submissions and got 288,” said Chip Decker, Artistic Director for Actor’s Theatre, who assisted in selection.

All nuVoices plays presented at Actor’s Theatre will be staged readings with limited blocking (on-stage movement) and simple scenic, sound and lighting design.  The rehearsal period will only last five days, enough for the actors to get comfortable with the script.  “This is about development; the playwright can reveal the rhythms of the piece and refine the language,” Cosper said.  “It’s nothing flashy.”

Each playwright will come to Charlotte to workshop rehearsal and watch the production.  Audiences can participate in a 20 minute-long talkback with the playwright and the director, as well as comment via an online survey.  With this information and feedback from the Actor’s Theatre staff, dramaturges and a six-judge panel, a winner will be selected.  After a rigorous revision process led by Decker, the 2012 winner will have his or her play fully produced for a two-week run as part of the 2013 nuVoices festival.

“Winning a competition throws light on the playwright and their work,” Cosper said.

“If we want to produce the next Eugene O’Neill, we have to provide a place for playwrights to put their work out and grow,” Decker explained.  Frequently, theaters fail to produce promising new plays because they are unwilling to take a risk.

“The main struggle is rejection,” Bencivenga said.  “You need a special kind of thick skin to deal with the mountain of ‘no thanks’ that comes your way; it can be crushing.” After college, he worked in a tight-knit community of part-time playwrights.  This support system served as both incubator and fundraiser for fledgling shows.  When the theatres disbanded he went, “on the road as a door to door salesman of my work.”

The hard work paid off for Bencivenga, an Emmy-winning producer at WABC-TV in New York.  For the stage, he has written, directed, produced and acted in one act and full-length plays as well as improvisational comedies and sketch comedies all over New York.  For the screen he wrote, directed and produced “Losers in Love” (1993), and co-wrote and directed “Happy Hour” (2005) starring Anthony LaPaglia and Eric Stoltz.

Fortunately for playwrights like Bencivenga, Actor’s Theatre is part of the National New Play Network.

“I can add new plays to the database where 28 other theaters across the country can pass around the new theatrical circuit,” Decker said.

Cosper said the National New Play Network eases the connection between playwright and production by “taking out the middleman.”

“I’ve learned to celebrate and savor successes when they come along,” Bencivenga said.  “It helps to build the emotional fortitude I’ll need when I start working on the next thing and start ringing doorbells again.”

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