Preview: JAW Playwrights Festival

The director of Portland Center Stage's annual play-development fest explains why we should be chomping at the bit to see this year's selections.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg July 24, 2013

Two weeks of frenzied but invigorating rewriting and rehearsing culminates this weekend in JAW, Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival. 

The fest (whose acronym stands for Just Add Water) each year selects four new works out of hundreds of submissions from across the country and brings the playwrights to the Armory for a fortnight of intensive script development with directors, dramaturgs, actors, and other theater professionals. Tons of tweaks (and likely at least one overhaul) later, the scripts receive staged readings before audiences of hundreds. Some, such as Lauren Weedman's The People’s Republic of Portland, go on to become PCS main-stage productions.

JAW: A Playwrights Festival 
July 25-27

The Armory
128 NW 11th Ave. 
Speaking to Culturephile by phone two days before the first readings, JAW Festival Director (and PCS Associate Artistic Director) Rose Riordan says the creative energy at the Armory is thrumming. “Some years, we have a lot of rewrites; some years, we don’t,” she says. “This year, we’ve been flooded with them—which means people are inspired.”

We asked Riordan to tell us a little about each of this year’s selections—and why we should be chomping at the bit to see them.

Friday, July 26 at 4 pm
Written by Dominic Finocchiaro
Directed by Brendon Fox

Bite-size synopsis: Something strange is going on in the apartment complex. When residents start turning up dead in ever more gruesome ways, it's left to busybody tenant Todd to sort out the mess and stop the bleeding. A dark comedy about modern living and other forms of mass murder.

What it’s really chewing on: “It’s about the experience we have as urban dwellers, living together and not knowing anything about each other. If you live in a single-dwelling home, and someone is in your home, you have this very personal, intimate relationship: you share the same bathroom; you share the same kitchen; you eat together. What does it mean when there are 1,000 people living in the same dwelling and they’re all having those experiences, but not together?”

The Ocean All Around Us
Friday, July 26 at 8 pm
Written by David Lavine
Directed by Ted Sod

Bite-size synopsis: After a young artist’s paintings are destroyed in a studio fire, he struggles to piece together a chain of life-changing events. His older brother, a psychiatrist, tends to him while facing his own transgressions from years past. A powerful, haunting play, searing with regret and disconcertingly erotic.

What it’s really chewing on: “It’s the story of two brothers with a pretty intense past. They’ve had a sexual history as brothers, and it has haunted the younger brother. He is about to have a huge show, and he paints a lot of his past into his work. His brother, who he has not had a relationship with for a very long time, finally, just before the show, comes to see him, and we discover what is in the pieces.

[Writer David Lavine] tells the story backward, so a lot of what is revealed, we don’t find out until the very end, and we’re running to catch up with it. It’s really fun—not fun, like, “ha ha ha” fun, but like it’s fun to watch a good story unfolding.”

Saturday, July 27 at 4 pm
Written by Yussef El Guindi
Directed by Chris Coleman

Bite-size synopsis: Leila and Rashid attempt to solve their relationship issues by inviting a relative stranger into their bedroom to engage in a threesome. What begins as a hilariously awkward evening soon becomes an experience fraught with secrets and tension, raising issues of sexism, possession, and independence.

What it’s really chewing on: The “power dynamic” among the threesome participants, “bodies,” “expectations,” and much more. “Initially, you kind of think, ‘Oh, it’s a sexual-exploration romp, but it’s really not—it’s a lot, lot deeper than that.”

Mai Dang Lao
Saturday, July 27 at 8 pm
Written by David Jacobi
Directed by Rose Riordan

Bite-size synopsis: During a tense shift at McDonald's, a young employee gives her two-months notice to her oppressive managers. As she is subjected to humiliation and abuse after being accused of theft, the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant becomes a war zone where self-improvement, denial, and foreign labor practices are used as weapons.  

What it’s really chewing on: The play is based on a true story in which a man prank-called scores of restaurants (including McDonald’s) and, impersonating a police officer, convinced the manager that one of their employees was stealing. In one case, an employee was strip-searched based on the accusation.

“A lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about is the psychology of authority. By the time that everything has happened, we have gotten to know everyone that’s involved, and none of them seem like monsters, or susceptible. And in the end, everyone walks away sort of surprised that—how did that happen? Even the ones who did the victimizing—how did I do that? And I think it turns the lens on all of us, who can feel vaguely separated and superior, like, ‘that would never happen; I would never do that,’ and yet I think it raises enough questions to make you ask: in the right circumstances, in the right situation, would you have allowed that to happen to yourself, or would you have allowed yourself to do that?

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