New works, new voices, new audiences

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday August 2, 2017
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The story and the songs of the bad-girl group behind "Leader of the Pack," a musical about a lesbian Jewish Wiccan marriage, and a Faustian upending of the contemporary coming-out story are among the main attractions of TheatreWorks' increasingly prestigious New Works Festival. Running Aug. 11-20 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, the 16th annual festival gives audiences the chance to experience works in development by prominent writers, and to participate in discussions with those writers about their current projects.

The use of "new" in the festival's title is a flexible term. For David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the Tony-nominated authors of the current hit Broadway musical "Come From Away," the Canadian husband-and-wife team are headed to Palo Alto to work on their very first musical. The origins of "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" go back to the 2009 Toronto fringe fest that led to a commercial run and tour in Canada. The show's story itself goes back to Hein's own boyhood journey with his mother staking out a new life with a new partner after years in a conventional marriage. Performances are on 8/12, 16 & 19.

But for another musical in the festival, this will be its first public forum even if its songs have been around for decades. "Past, Present, Future: The Shangri-Las" follows the lives and careers of two pairs of sisters from the Queens who made up the Shangri-Las, whose "bad girl" image set them apart from other girl groups of the early 60s. The death-by-motorcycle "Leader of the Pack" cemented this image, and other hits included "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," and the song that gives the musical its title, and one of the group's last charted singles, "Past, Present, and Future."

This project in the mode of "Jersey Boys," "Motown," and "Beautiful" is the first theater piece for librettist David Steen, although his expansive television credits include "Hill Street Blues," "The L Word," and "Boardwalk Empire." According to the promotional material, the Shangri-Las' "mysterious end is solved for the first time in this American musical journey." Performances are on 8/13, 17 & 20.

Solo performer Kevin Rolston uses a Faustian conceit for the contemporary tale told in "Deal With the Dragon" at the TheatreWorks festival. Photo: Kenny Yun

The fine-tuning on Kevin Rolston's "Deal With the Dragon" continues at TheatreWorks after several local stagings and one foray to the Edinburgh fringe fest. Rolston plays three characters in his solo show (developed with and directed by M. Graham Smith) about a struggling artist with an overly solicitous live-in patron and a rival artist who's a self-described "skinny queen" with a brutal wit and a history of drug addiction. A piece about the bargains we strike to survive, Rolston has said he thought he was writing "for a very specific audience of middle-aged or older gay men," and was surprised to find the piece striking a more universal note. "It's essentially speaking to anyone struggling with behavior they're not happy with." Performances are on 8/13 & 19.

Two more plays will receive staged readings during the festival. Stephanie Zadravec's "Tiny Houses" (8/15 & 19) takes place in the days and weeks following the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014, and explores how lives were affected around the world. In "3 Farids" (8/18 & 20), Ramiz Monsef focuses on three actors trying to surmount Hollywood stereotypes of Arab-Americans through satire and broad physical comedy.

Among the festival's special events are a keynote address by Jeff Raz, a veteran of the Pickle Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil, who will talk about "The Secret Life of Clowns" (8/11); New York comedy show "Blogologues" that pulls together such diverse Internet sources as Tinder messages, Amazon reviews, tweets, and "fake news" for a series of NSFW sketches (8/18); and an open rehearsal where multiple versions of key scenes of Jeff Lo's new play "Waiting for Next" (8/12) will be tried out. The festival will conclude with a "meet the artists" panel where the featured playwrights and composers will talk about their creative processes and answer questions from the audience (8/20).

More info on all festival events is available at


Women on the write side

A second new works festival will overlap with the final days of the TheatreWorks event. 3Girls Theatre, a company dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting new plays by women, is presenting the sixth edition of its festival Aug. 17-27 at Potrero Stage under the title "Radical Hope & the New Resistance." Staged readings of full-length works, collections of short pieces, and workshops will be offered.

The full-length plays receiving staged readings are Susan Jackson's "Miracle Lake" (8/18 & 26) that takes place at a family reunion after a horrific event and in flashbacks before it, and AJ Baker's "Disruption" (8/25 & 26) about a female CEO threatened by an anonymous whistleblower whose threats may be about business or may be strictly personal.

Other events happening during the festival include "Repro Rights! Radical Hope and the New Resistance" (8/19), which is made up of short pieces, monologues, and performances about a woman's autonomy over her body; "Best of LezWrites! 2017," offering short humorous pieces from the LGBT perspective; "QueerWrites!" (8/23), a writing workshop led by Margery Kreitman for lesbian, bi, trans and questioning writers; "Girl Talk: The Play" (8/24), Suze Allen and Carol Langlois' stage version of stories from Langlois' book "Girl Talk: Boys Bullies, and Body Image"; and "The 3GT Day at Potrero Stage" (8/26), which brings the festival to an end with a double-header of both full-length plays, a talk-back with festival artists, and a closing reception.

Admission to all events is free, although reservations are recommended at