Maine playwrights seem to grow ever more numerous and prolific, with their work showcased in many local new-work festivals, such as the Maine Playwrights Festival, Crowbait, and PortFringe. But these outlets generally focus on producing shorter forms, says local actor and writer Brent Askari, who saw a gap in the opportunities that Portland provides for the development of full-length scripts. To fill that gap, Askari has spearheaded the launch of By Local, a new series at Mad Horse dedicated to staging readings of full-length plays by local writers. By Local launched earlier this month with Pudding, by Michael Tooher, and Getting Daddy’s Gak, by Payne Ratner; it continues this weekend with Papermakers, by Monica Wood, and Alligator Road, by Callie Kimball.
Askari realized that a lot of playwrights he knew in town were successfully sending their full-length plays out nationally, he explains, but that they had fewer opportunities to get their work in front of local audiences. “I loved the idea of Mad Horse being able to present public readings of full-length plays by local writers,” he says, “and to have not just one or two slots, but many — we have eight over the course of the season.” Giving each play more than one reading was also a priority, so that playwrights have the opportunity to tinker with their scripts between performances. He began soliciting submissions from a range of local writers for four fall-season slots, with another four scheduled for the spring.
This weekend’s plays are set, respectively, in a Florida hardware store and a Maine mill town. Kimball’s Alligator Road, directed by Christine Louise Marshall, tells the story of Kathy, who has just finished yarn-bombing all the tools in the store. It’s a parting gesture before she hands over the keys to a stranger and moves on with her life — though Kathy’s daughter has her own agenda. Author Kimball, a Springvale resident, has garnered many credentials in the theater world, having had her plays produced and developed at the Kennedy Center, Lark Play Development Center, and the Washington Shakespeare Company.
In contrast, Papermaker is the first foray into playwriting for Wood, the beloved Portland novelist and author of the much-acclaimed memoir When We Were the Kennedys. Her play is based on her 2002 connected-shorts collection Ernie’s Ark. “I wasn’t quite finished with the characters, but I didn’t think they belonged in a sequel novel,” she explains. “I wrote it in airports and hotel rooms, mainly, while I was promoting When We Were the Kennedys. I have never had more fun writing anything.” She later staged a reading of the script at her home, inviting some of her favorite local actors, one of whom was Askari — and the By Local connection was made.
Papermaker, directed by Daniel Burson, concerns a five-month paper-mill strike in Abbott Falls, Maine, and the two families whose relations it strains. Longtime mill-worker Ernie (James Herrera) is on strike, but fears his son Jake (Erik Moody) will cross the picket line. Henry (Askari) owns the mill, but has his own struggles with his emotionally fragile daughter Emily (Casey Turner). As the labor dispute goes on and emotions rise, the families’ lives intersect unexpectedly, and both laborer and owner must examine the intricacies of fatherhood and a life well lived.