Seen and Overheard at FutureFest 2014

Annual festival of new plays provides feedback for playwrights.

More than 200 theater-lovers gathered at the Dayton Playhouse last weekend its festival of new plays.

What makes FutureFest special, playwrights say, is the feedback they get from professional judges, audience members, casts and crews. The casual setting lends itself to strolls and conversation in the blooming Wegerzyn Gardens Metropark.

The weekend marathon, produced entirely by volunteers, traditionally kicks off with a champagne toast and ends with an outdoor picnic and award ceremony. In between are six full-length productions.

One of the most fascinating parts of FutureFest is the opportunity to listen to playwrights as they share the inspiration for their plays.

A teary and overwhelmed Linda Ramsay-Detherage of Detroit accepted the $1,000 prize for “Sugarhill,” a play that she said took her only three days to write and was inspired by an historic act of kindness. She said it was “a little bit of a gift from a ghost.”

Her script centers around a white Southern family trying to recover from a devastating tragedy. The arrival of a black fugitive and the hope he represents causes them to defy the racist Jim Crow laws of their state. The play is dedicated to Lanier Phillips, a survivor of the shipwreck of the USS Truxtun during WWII. Ramsay-Detherage heard Lanier’s story in 2010 on National Public Radio’s “This American Life.”

“Phillips was a black man born in 1923, and raised in the Jim Crow south,” she explained. “The KKK burned down his school, and the only future he felt he had was being a share-cropper. He joined the Navy, and was one of a handful of black servicemen on the Truxtun. In February 1942, the Truxtun crashed into the rocks on the coast of Newfounland; Phillips was the only black crewman to survive. He was covered with oil and tar, and the people of St. Lawrence rescued him.

Phillips was terrified because the women kept scrubbing him, but couldn’t get his skin white. When he told them he was and his skin would never come clean, he was sure he would be lynched because in the American south, it was against the law to be tended by a white woman under any circumstances, says Ramsay-Detherage.

“To his amazement, the ladies didn’t care,” she said. “The people of St. Lawrence housed and nursed him, and their kindness — he said later — changed his life. He went on to go to sonar school, college, and became an important there.

Ramsay-Detherage said she’d forgotten about the story until March 11, 2012, when she woke up with it “banging in my head.” When she discovered that Mr. Phillips had died that same day, she sat down at her computer and wrote the play.

She said was also amazing that “Sugarhill” received its first professional read on March 11, 2013, and she was notified that she was a FutureFest semi-finalist on March 11, 2014!

Other 2014 finalists included “The Paymaster” and “Masterwork,” both by M.J. Feely ;“The Killing Jar” by Jennifer Lynne Roberts; “Wash, Dry, Fold,” by Nedra Pezold Roberts, and “The Humanist” by Kuros Charney. Next year’s FutureFest dates were announced by Brian Sharp, chairperson of the Dayton Playhouse Board of Directors. So as not to conflict with Dayton’s Celtic Festival, the festival will be held July 17-19, with a 25th anniversary event slated for July 16.

First-time patron

Jude Whelley of Harrison Twp. says it was her first FutureFest but will definitely not be her last. She labeled the weekend “delicious” and said she was proud and happy that Dayton nourishes creativity and innovation in the arts.

At a Saturday night dinner at The Barnsider restaurant, Whelley sat with two playwrights, an actor and a FF volunteer. “It was a thrill to talk with them about the creative process and how unique FutureFest is,” she said.

Into the world

When FutureFest program director Fran Pesch gave her closing remarks at the end of the weekend, she also provided an update about past FutureFest finalists: “Another Day on Willow Street” by Frank Anthony Polito was produced at the Compass Rose Theater, Annapolis, MD. in May. “Veils” by Tom Coash was performed at Portland Stage, Maine, in February and March of this year.

“Nureyev’s Eyes by David Rush will be produced in October at the American Stage Theatre Co., Tampa, Fla., and “Heartland” by Anita Simons and Lauren Simon is being published in a social-fictions book series.

Both “A Position of Relative Importance” by Hal Borden and “Veils” had staged readings in Cleveland in 2014 by the Interplay Jewish Theatre and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Creating a stir

The play that generated the most discussion over the weekend was “Masterwork” by Dayton native M.J. Feely, the story of a playwright who is facing death and is determined to write a play for Broadway before he dies.

While the professional critics focused on what they perceived to be inaccuracies related to the process of getting a play on Broadway, those in the audience expressed strong support for the play’s themes and the emotions. There was also much talk about whether Broadway/New York is the arbiter of a play’s worth and excellence.

The playwright didn’t take it personally.

“I’ve never seen an audience here push back against the adjudicators,” said Feely, who has returned to town frequently as a FutureFest winner and finalist and had two plays in this year’s event. “I think the audience saw the true heart of the play, it’s about death and dying and what the playwright needs out of his life before he died.” Feely said the inspiration for the was personal: “a fairly serious health scare and turning 60 at the same time.”

“My attitude about my work is that I’m rejected every single day,” he explained. “You gotta have thick skin to do this work, you gotta take the criticism it with a bag of salt.”

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