The very first Ashland New Plays Festival, held in April 1993, featured a unique collaboration among local theaters. Seven new plays, written by local playwrights, were presented as readings, each in a different venue. The objective was to present new works, giving audiences, actors, and playwrights a role in the evolution of a new play. The catalyst for this groundbreaking event was the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Each play had to in some way reflect on the themes of heritage, adventure, or human perseverance in pursuit of a goal. The festival was supported in part by the Ashland Visitors and Convention Bureau and the Arts Council of Southern Oregon.
This collaboration among local theaters continued for the next three years. The energy and enthusiasm for a new plays festival culminated in the formation of a board of directors, who in 1996 reorganized a dormant nonprofit company under the name ArtWork Enterprises. One goal was to expand an educational component for both young people and adults; another was to become a major play development resource on the West Coast.
ANPF has evolved through several permutations over the years. It started as a loose collaboration among several local theatres, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), and eventually became a single nonprofit entity. Its mission, however, has remained remarkably constant. ANPF has always been dedicated to playwrights and the development and enhancement of new works for the theatre, with strong educational and outreach components.
Prior to 1997 as many as eight new works were read, in various venues around town, with submissions limited to playwrights of selected western states; 1997 was a watershed year in that only five plays were on the program, among them David Rambo’s Speaky-Spikey-Spokey. Also in that year, The Magic Fire by Lillian Garrett-Groag (ANPF 1995) premiered at OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre. Rambo’s enthusiasm for ANPF led to his subsequent return as host playwright. Robert Koon (ANPF 1999 and 2005) also returned as host playwright, as has EM Lewis (ANPF 2008), who has been our host playwright since 2010.
In 1998 a one-week summer program for young playwrights, Fresh Ink, was held. In partnership with faculty from Southern Oregon University (SOU), 20 high school students created an evening of short plays around a single theme. In 2000 playwright Karen Zacarias received the prestigious Helen Hayes Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for her play The Sins of Sor Juana (ANPF 1999). In 2004 ANPF established residency at Oregon Stage Works for the flagship festival and, in conjunction with SOU students, introduced Ashland’s first 10-Minute Play Festival. The 24/7 Project was presented in 2007 and reprised in 2008.
In 2009 the festival was on hiatus as the organization was rebuilt from scratch by a cadre of recent enthusiasts and board members from its early years. The new board established a nonprofit organization—Ashland New Plays Festival, Inc.—with zero dollars in the bank. Because the 2009 call for scripts had been canceled, it was too late to mount a full-scale national festival, but the new board presented the ANPF Student Spotlight (four staged one-act plays) and a remount of EM Lewis’s Song of Extinction (ANPF 2008) at OSF’s Carpenter Hall as fundraisers. In 2010 the traditional festival was back, and the organization has been growing steadily ever since.
In recent years, under the guidance of now-retired artistic director Douglas Rowe, ANPF expanded its offerings by adding theatrical readings in support of the flagship festival, including David Rambo’s God’s Man in Texas, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, Molly Tinsley’s The Limits of Bliss, William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony, Richard Manley’s Quietus, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), and Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. Most of these were onetime productions, but ANPF Theatre Talk interviews, added in 2012, are ongoing, and the ANPF Board of Directors continues to explore ways to raise funds and bring exciting theatrical events to the Rogue Valley.
Ashland New Plays Festival has remained a small but vital force in the community for nearly a quarter century. This success is a reflection of the many people who recognize the value of theater in their lives and believe in the need for a continuous search for new works. ANPF has given scores of playwrights from far and wide the forum to have their fledgling works read before a supportive, knowledgeable, and insightful audience.
For our flagship festival in October, the winning playwrights are in residence for an entire week. During this fertile time, they talk with other playwrights, receive counsel from our host playwright, and have ample opportunities to discuss their plays in informal social settings. Testimonials from past winners attest to the value of our festival—its supportive atmosphere, instant feedback, and emphasis on the words. Additional evidence of the value of the experience is that many winning playwrights continue to submit work to us. Dori Appel, Robert Barnett, Bob Clyman, Leonard Gross, Robert Koon, Richard Manley, James McLindon, Jamie Pachino, and Carla Seaquist are among those whose scripts have won more than once. In 2016, we added Beth Kander who won for Hazardous Materials at ANPF 2016 and for The Bottle Tree at ANPF 2015. The success stories of plays emerging from our relatively small festival are too numerous to list.
ANPF has made its mark both locally and nationally, and from the very beginning three key elements have been necessary for a successful festival: the selection of exciting new plays by exceptional playwrights, world-class directors and actors who bring life to the pages, and the many people behind the scenes who do their parts to make ANPF one of the premier new play festivals in the country.
As we celebrate our twenty-sixth year, we like to think that the work of the next generation of great American playwrights might begin with a reading at ANPF.