Audiences Encouraged to Offer Feedback at Cleveland Public Theatre's Entry Point Festival 

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"We actually started to hope it would be a failure, since it was so hard to put it all together. But last year was incredibly popular, so we're doing it again this year. I guess we can hope it'll fail this time!" So says executive creative director of Cleveland Public Theatre Raymond Bobgan, with tongue slightly in cheek, as he talks about their Entry Point event that starts Jan. 18, and runs through Jan. 20.

Entry Point is both a workshop and a celebration. It is essentially a workshop for new theater pieces created by 95 artists — pieces that range in length from 15 minutes to 90 minutes (plus one ongoing installation) — and that involve all manner of mixed media and performance. And it's all presented in a loose but highly organized festival format where patrons choose which shows they want to see. And there's no way to see them all.

This is really nothing new for CPT, since they have been deeply involved in new play development for more than 20 years. As Bobgan says, "In the 10 years from 1996 to 2006, we staged 10 readings of local plays, along with 29 workshops and the production of 18 new plays. Compare that to the following 10 years, when we hosted 78 readings of local plays, presented 105 workshops and staged 35 full productions of work by local playwrights. This is an important mission for us."

And it's quite an undertaking, since Bobgan and his talented staff have to juggle the needs of multiple creators, performers and audience members over three evenings, with shows going on simultaneously in seven venues on the CPT campus. "We approach this like it's a festival," notes Bobgan. "We sell passes for each evening or for the three-day weekend, and our bars are open so people can get the refreshments they want. It's a high-energy environment, and everyone has a great time."

But as Bobgan is quick to point out, it's not all fun and games. "Each of these artists is working on something that means a lot to them, and they're eager to get feedback from the audience to help them shape their pieces." This feedback is encouraged in several ways. There is a brief discussion after each presentation when the audience can share their thoughts in the moment, positive or otherwise. In addition, there are cards in the Entry Point lounge where audience members can write their opinions, and those who wish to can receive an email survey afterwards.

This is the second year that Lauren Joy Fraley has participated in Entry Point, and she is very excited to be back with an excerpt from her work titled Wryneck. As she explains, "I love Entry Point because it honors the uniqueness of the individuals who are creating these theatrical pieces. But it also gives us a safe place where we can fail, if necessary, to answer big questions about ourselves and our projects."

Fraley's innovative Wryneck is described as follows: "A bird flies across geographical and psychological spaces through Morse Code-like patterns, stirring the reality of individual women in separate lives." In other words, this ain't your traditional theater fare. And that is what Bobgan finds particularly gratifying: "Years ago, we were the only theater developing new plays. But now, many theaters have started fostering beginning work, so we can focus on developing the kind of theater we find exciting — theater that stretches boundaries and is inventive, intelligent and socially conscious."

Another of the Entry Point creators, Jimmie Woody, finds a connection to his heritage in what he's doing. "Griots were West African storytellers who transmitted all the information of a village and its people. But when colonialists took over, many of the griots were killed to eliminate the history of those people. I see myself as carrying on that griot tradition, and Entry Point gives me that rare opportunity."

Woody's piece, Tale of Jiminirising, is a "theatrical memoir combining poetry, hip hop and digital storytelling about figuring out how to be a man in the never-ending landscape of what masculinity means in America." And even though it deals with very personal aspects of Woody's life, including various challenges faced by his mother and sister, it's all worth it. In Woody's words, "I want to find out if people connect to these stories, if they ring true. It all comes down to a desire to answer one question: Am I alone?"

In addition to the 12 new works, most of which are repeated up to several times over three nights, there will be free afternoon panel discussions on Saturday, Jan. 20. One discussion will on "Activism and Audience Interaction" and the other will cover the topic, "Getting Better as an Artist." These panels will include participation by local and national theater professionals.

Entry Point is happening at an exciting time for CPT, since the theater just announced a groundbreaking collaboration project, "Cross-Pollination." Funded by the National New Play Network, CPT will join forces with two other theater companies — Kitchen Dog Theater from Dallas and InterAct Theatre Company from Philadelphia — to work with playwrights outside their sphere of influence. Thus, playwright James Ijames from Philadelphia is here at Entry Point with his play history of walking, and Cleveland playwright Lisa Langford will take her play Rastus & Hattie to Dallas in June.

If new plays excite you, and you want to be part of the process, check out CPT this weekend.

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