“At Cleveland Play House, we’re interested in doing thrilling, mind-expanding entertainment and we want to bring exciting new writers to Cleveland,” Rachel Lerner-Ley, Cleveland Play House’s (CPH) literary manager and resident dramaturg, said.
Lerner-Ley emphasized these qualities when describing the 14th New Ground Theatre Festival (NGTF), an annual festival held by CPH that showcases new work from playwrights.
“The Ground Works Theatre Festival is a celebration of contemporary and new work that are at different levels of development and performance life,” Lerner-Ley said. “We want to develop relationships with writers while introducing them and their work to Cleveland.”
CPH’s main stage production “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías kicks off the NGTF April 27 in the Allen Theatre. The story focuses on two neighboring families, the Del Valles and the Butleys, whose very different gardening preferences combined with an unclear property line results in a full-blown border dispute.
Two whole gardens on stage act as the setting for what Lerner-Ley described as a hilarious show. However, the show also has social undertones, as the Butleys and Del Valles differ in their age, race, historical privilege and political views.
“While this is a big comedy with some great spectacle, it’s also exploring conversations around class, privilege, race and immigration,” Lerner-Ley said. “These are conversations that are occurring in dialogue across the country and in Cleveland.”
“We say the show uproots assumptions and plants the seeds for understanding—all the garden metaphors,” Lerner-Ley said. “But audiences can expect to be laughing a lot.”
CPH continues this theme with their second show of the NGTF, the long-winded “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black.”
Written and performed by Mark Kendall, “The Magic Negro” was developed in Dad’s Garage, a prominent non-profit comedy theatre in Atlanta. Primarily a sketch show with theatrical elements, such as sketches, character pieces, improv, character engagement, the play examines the representation of black individuals in the media.
According to Lerner-Ley, Kendall’s originally 90-minute piece was condensed to 60-minutes in order to make it more accessible to perform in different venues across the country. Also, due to its stand-up comedic nature, Kendall will be taking some time to adjust the material to cater to the city and to what’s current within the news cycle before he performs from May 16-19 in the Outcalt Theatre.
“It speaks very frankly about race,” Lerner-Ley said of the show. “You can come in and expect to laugh but also think and ask questions of yourself and of others. But then you’ll laugh some more.”
“The performer and writer really takes time to do some introspection,” Lerner-Ley said.
While both “The Magic Negro” and “Native Gardens” are fully realized productions, CPH’s next NGTF show “Egress” is a workshop production by Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick.
Named this year’s Roe Green Award Workshop Production, “Egress” follows protagonist “You” who has just moved from a small college town to teach architecture. However, You is plagued by fears and begins questioning her safety. Roe Green is an honorary producer of the festival. According to Lerner-Ley, the Roe Green Awards are meant to bring in exciting writers to Cleveland.
This psychological drama is being held in the Helen Lab, an intimate black-box theater that Learner-Ley believes will work well with the piece. She also indicated because much of the show is presented in the second person, audiences will truly see into the protagonist’s mind.
While not a fully produced production, this show will feature all the theatrical elements that an audience usually expects, such as lighting, projections, costume and set design. Lerner-ley said the goal of this workshop is to learn how the design elements and movement will affect and bolster the story.
After the first two shows on May 10 and 11, the show is going back into rehearsals. This gives the playwright and creatives a chance to observe the show and audience feedback, learn what elements are affective and then adjust the show if need be before returning to the stage from May 17-19.
“What’s really fascinating about this play is the use of architecture as a metaphor,” Lerner-Ley said. “This show deals with socially relevant issues and has the opportunity to dig into how design intersects with the play development process.”
Also being held in the Helen Lab Theatre is a reading of Cleveland playwright Eric Coble’s “The Hat Box (or, The Inheritance).”
This show centers around two sisters, who when going through their late father’s belongings, come upon a mysterious hat box. The plot twists and turns as the sisters trace the box to their eccentric aunt and discover new family mysteries.
The reading taking place on May 16 is the first time the script will be read in front of an audience.
CPH readings are simplistic, consisting of the audience, the actors and the script. Actors will sit or stand next to music stands, upon which sits the script they are reading.
“This is one of those shows that sneaks up on you because you are going on this family history adventure with all these twists and turns—but then you’ll come upon these moments of pure feeling and insight or discovery,” Lerner-Ley said. “It just gets you.”
Another reading held in the Helen Lab Theatre during the NGTF is “Christina: an irreverent passion” by Alexis Scheer.
Named 2019’s Roe Green Award Reading, Scheer’s show follows Christina Alvarez, the honors student, good-girl who is about to graduate from high school. After an all-night choir trip, an unexpected kiss opens Christina’s eyes to what it means to be a bad-girl.
According to Lerner-Ley, one of the unifying themes of Scheer’s work is tough girls in charge, and Christina is no different.
“This show is being written at this very moment, so audiences attending the reading are going to be the first to ever hear this performed out loud,” Lerner-Ley said. “You can expect some big laughs. It is a bold an exciting show that approaches teenage girlhood with real honesty—no holds barred.”
Rounding out the NGTF are CPH’s Theatre Academy performances of the commissioned works “Feed” by Eric Coble and “Wildfire and the Bird Scouts” by Kristin Idaszak.
Based on the novel by M.T. Anderson, “Feed” takes place in the future, where everyone has a device implanted in their mind telling them what to think and feel. Teenager Titus begins questioning this controlling device after he meets his first love and decides to try thinking for himself.
Held in the Outcalt Theatre May 11 and 12, “Feed” is described by Lerner-Ley as a highly theatrical piece that is a very subjective experience.
This show was developed in the 2016 NGTF as a reading, and raises questions such as, if social media is implanted in our brains, how does it affect our identity?
“The teen performers in the ensemble have really been loving the piece and it has generated a lot of conversation,” Lerner-Ley said.
On these same dates, even younger actors ranging from 9-13 will be performing in “Wildfire and the Bird Scouts.”
The show follows fledglings who are making their first ever migration but are stranded in a strange forest when a rampant wildfire separates them from their flock.
“This is a piece that deals with environmental issues but also is about resilience, ingenuity and hope and what it means to come together,” Lerner-Ley said. “It’s whimsical but full of danger and thrilling.”
Lerner-Ley believes that this year’s NGTF line-up corresponds with CPH’s mission.
“These shows fit into what we do at Cleveland Play House,” Lerner-Ley said. “We’re interested in stories and experiences that matter. We want plays that make you to think, that are smart, socially relevant, bold, are being told in distinctive ways and feature a diversity of ideas and character.”