Las Vegas playwrights are on the march to add new voices to local theater

Illustration by The Heads of State

Illustration by The Heads of State

New words to say, new characters to interpret them, new ideas to challenge us. No Felix and Oscar, no Willy and Biff, no Romeo, oh Romeo. Can you handle that, theatergoers?

“Finding original voices in this city is vital to getting us on the national theater map,” says Erica Griffin, one of numerous Las Vegas-based playwrights in a city where community theater isn’t an easy sell.

Perhaps that is about to change. Culture commands this city’s attention now as The Smith Center for the Performing Arts delivers a raft of Broadway musicals to entertain even those who never thought they could be mesmerized by (insert exaggerated elitist accent here) “The Theater.” What better time, then, to cultivate and appreciate the grittier side to high-gloss theater and discover the pleasures therein?

Topics and genres vary greatly among our home-bred wordsmiths. Ernest Hemmings’ bulky résumé encompasses what he calls “absurd to parody to brutal realism” in plays such as The Shande of Rabbi Schlemazel, about a rabbi’s affair with a transgender prostitute. Author of six short plays, Dave Surratt also penned the full-length Listen, about a medical research analyst fired for using music therapy to aid cancer patients.

Drawn to dark comedy, Griffin finds funny beats in murder, suicide, mental illness and abuse. Among her 18 plays, Casa De Nada, about a band of homeless people living in a tent city in a rich woman’s back yard, won Las Vegas Little Theater’s “Best Of” prize at its Fringe Festival.

“There seems to be a good amount of new plays in Las Vegas from local writers,” says Walter Niejadlik, president of Las Vegas Little Theatre, which provides new playwrights a platform, including a New Works Competition. “Hopefully the audience will grow. New works are vital, or there is no growth of the art.”

Playwright-in-residence programs would also bolster the profile of Vegas dramatists. “We have a free weekly workshop that we run for six months, then produce scripts from that effort in the remaining six months,” says John Beane, director of Insurgo Theater Movement. “We’re currently in the producing phase with three scripts chosen.”

Yet growth includes growing pains, and sometimes setbacks. The craft took a painful hit locally when UNLV, sucker-punched by state budget cuts, suspended its post-grad playwriting program. Swept away along with it were productions of student works in the university’s Black Box Theatre. Long gone are the greatly missed Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts and its cutting-edge cultural presentations, as well as Hemmings’ downtown SEAT (Social Experimentation and Absurd Theater). Adventurous venues remain, though, to nurture new work: Onyx Theatre at the Commercial Center, Insurgo Theater Movement at the Plaza, Theatre 7 and Cockroach Theatre.

Opinions vary among local playwrights, though, about the receptiveness to their scripts. “Las Vegas is a great place to start,” says Surratt, whose playwriting career was preceded by three years as a theater critic with Las Vegas CityLife. “Given the relative lack of entrenched cliques and grim gatekeepers to the scene, it’s not hard for an aspiring playwright with any talent or ambition to be heard.”

Others’ experiences have been different. “Usually playwrights are turned away or ignored unless there is an actual call for them to submit,” Hemmings says, “or if the playwright is in with the theater company in question and happens to have a finished play to be produced.”

Once a playwright has grabbed a theater’s attention, though, other obstacles loom. “You think you’re going to make your money back on production costs with a play written by a nobody? You might as well show foreign films in Montana,” Hemmings says. “But—and this is a very big ‘but’—if you are good with marketing and you pick content you know will push the right buttons with your base, then you could easily come out ahead.”

Whether by William Shakespeare or Neil Simon, established plays are safer bets to bring in paying customers. Unknown authors need to work within narrower budget margins. “If you are a nobody like me, it is really important to keep in mind how much it would cost to do your show,” says Hemmings, whose work was produced at his own SEAT and Gianaclis Park, as well at the Cleveland Public Theatre in Ohio and Los Angeles’ Riprap Studio. “You better have fewer than four characters and give producers a reason to think they’ll be able to market it easily. Sex, violence, politics—that stuff is easy to market.”

Theater’s status as popular entertainment has declined over the decades, leaving a largely older, nostalgia-loving fan base with a suspicion of novelty. Keeping the doors open often requires theater companies to cater to patrons’ sentimental attachments by staging classic plays. “It’s kind of like sitting around and listening for the thousandth time to the great old Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin of one’s youth, rather than take the time to discover the new guard of Radiohead and Queens of the Stone Age,” Surratt says. “An important difference [is] that there are far fewer theater fans than rock fans.”

Yet local playwright and actor Ernie Curcio is optimistic about the evolution of audiences. “The Vegas audience of the past will soon pass and so will their season tickets and their grip on deadly theater,” Curcio says. Among his 26 plays, staged in Vegas and New York City, are Warmouth and the deeply personal Unfinished and Sundrops, both partially prompted by the 2008 suicide of his first wife, local theater veteran Barbara Ann Rollins. “A new audience will emerge from the ashes, and they’ll have no appetite for stale plays.”

Would plays specifically addressing Las Vegas and its pinwheel of eccentric characters up the odds for engaging local audiences? Griffin is a one-playwright juggernaut for that cause. Consider her catalog:

Inbred focuses on a Boulder City cover musician drawn by a groupie into a strange reality (and a shack near Hoover Dam). Opening April 27 at Las Vegas Little Theatre after winning its New Works Competition, Spearminted tells of a romance between a stripper and a street sign-twirler after she accidentally hits him with her car.

“You could say I’m more creatively obsessed with Las Vegas folk,” Griffin says. “I want to write about bartenders and showgirls and chefs and executives. I want to write about dealers and musicians and clowns and union workers and tourists, too. There is something so fascinating about the people who choose to live here and the way they do or don’t adapt. I feel like I can give a voice to them, unique to this time and place.”

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