By Rebecca Harris
On Monday, June 25, one West Side church will transform into a live theater for a week of never-before-seen plays performed in front of an audience. Monday marks the beginning of production week for The Puzzle Festival of New Work, a theater festival that will showcase the unfinished plays and musicals of 10 playwrights.
In its second year, the festival, hosted by Marble Collegiate Church, affords playwrights the opportunity to see their works in progress performed as staged readings by professional actors. Each of the chosen writers was selected from a pool of more than 100 submissions, was provided with a production team consisting of a director and a handful of actors and two weeks of studio time to rehearse, make edits and get their piece stage-ready.
"Being so new to playwriting, the fact that they are taking care of casting for me, finding a director for me, allowing me a chance to actually process and write-it's a very nurturing experience," said Ashley Gorham Johnson, a New York resident whose short play, Don't Waste the Pretty, will debut as a work in progress on Marble's stage next Thursday evening.
For Johnson, participating in last year's inaugural Puzzle Festival inspired her to submit her work for potential production for the first time since she began writing plays.
"I'd never really taken the plunge to submit before, but it was such fun, such great production quality last year that I thought I would give it a try," she said. "It was a really exciting feeling that they believed enough in my work to give me the space to continue to create."
The Puzzle distinguishes itself from other theater festivals by giving playwrights the chance to stay involved in the creative development of their work at every step until it is shown on stage, according to Marya Spring Cordes, co-founder and artistic director for the festival.
"Our vision for The Puzzle was a playwright-driven festival. A lot of times, when plays are submitted to a festival, the producing body really takes over from there," Cordes said. "Our vision is the opposite."
Brian Hampton, co-founder and producer of The Puzzle, worked with Cordes to craft that vision after becoming director of Marble's Arts Ministry last year. He hoped to both foster community at Marble and to draw new visitors who might be interested in becoming involved in the church.
"We're inclusive and progressive, and sometimes it's a surprise for some artists who maybe had stepped away from going to church when they moved to New York. I'm a preacher's kid, so I know how that is," Hampton said.
This was true for Mark Garcia, a second-year Puzzle winner who has been drawn to Marble since participating in the festival last year.
"I found myself going to services when I hadn't been for quite a while. They were so welcoming, it was such a family; I wanted to be part of that," Garcia said.
Garcia will be the first playwright to present on Monday with a short, 15-minute play entitled Inscriptions. His winning entry last year, a full-length play, is currently in the process of development for production in Brooklyn in March.
According to Hampton, audience members will be able to give the playwrights "talk-back" evaluations after their works are read on stage. He said receiving feedback can help writers like Garcia adapt and edit their plays for future production.
The audience-about 500 people attended the festival last year over the course of the week-includes members of the Marble congregation as well as "people right off the street who just kind of walked by," according to Hampton.
The Puzzle events are free and open to the public.
The Puzzle Festival of New Work, Marble Collegiate Chuch, 1 W. 29th St. (at 5th Ave.), marblechurch.org; June 25-30, 7 p.m.
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