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The Fourth Annual Gathering at Bigfork. A Review

Conrad Davidson

Volume 6, 1993.

The Fourth Annual Gathering at Bigfork in Montana is a laboratory for playwrights who need an outlet for new scripts, an outlet without pressure for instant success. Each May for the past four years, organizers of this event have invited professional playwrights to bring work-in-progress to a play-writing workshop. Professional directors and actors are employed to experiment with development of each playwright's play. Following a short, but intensive, rehearsal schedule, the public is invited to view a staged reading of each play.

In their promotional material, the organizers of the event define the intent behind the gathering:

the gathering at Bigfork was born out of a desire to give American playwrights a haven to explore and develop new work. Our focus is on process, not performance. Our intent is to celebrate the craft of making a play.


The 1993 gathering featured eleven playwrights who were involved with nine productions. Several playwrights are well-known: Constance Congdon, author of Tales of the Lost Formicans; Erik Brogger, The Paranormal Review; Jack Heifner, best known for Vanities; Lynne Alvarez, The Wonderful Tower of Humbert Lavoignet; John Pielmeier, Agnes of God; and the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Robert Schenkkan. Lesser-known playwrights included Coleen Hubbard (Colorado), Rebecca Reynolds (Kentucky), and Vic Charlo and Zan Agzigian, both writers with the Native American Theatre Project, sponsored by the University of Montana.

Audience members at this year's gathering had the opportunity to see realistic plays, a musical, an experimental work, and a murder mystery. Subject matter of the plays examined such topics as relationships in dysfunctional families, memories of family members and the things left unsaid, the effect of AIDS on friends and families, and problems in multicultural relationships.

In addition to the staged readings, the gathering offered several features of interest to aspiring playwrights. The morning following each staged reading, registrants at the conference met with guest playwrights for cafe critiques. the professional, playwrights offered insight into their responsive creative processes as well as suggestions on marketing new works.

Several playwrights named books they found influential. Others offered such basic advice as "Show your work only to those whose opinions you trust," or "Have faith in your work."

One particular piece of advice surprised many of the writers at the conference, and that was from Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize winner. During his cafe critique session, Schenkkan discussed the process of writing The Kentucky Cycle, which was produced first in Seattle and then Los Angeles, where it won the Pulitzer. Most people would assume that winning such an honor would eliminate the need for further revision. Schenkkan, however, said he was in the process of revising the play for a New York production, reinforcing the idea that revision is on-going and that the creative work can always be improved.

John Pielmeier offered other valuable advice, especially for playwrights working toward that first professional production. Piemeier's advice: cultivate networks; meet and talk to people involved with production of new plays. Write good plays, but don't forget the marketing side of the play process.

Workshop registrants also met with artistic directors from professional theatres, who offered advice on how playwrights might get the attention of professionals.

The workshop of special interest to most registrants centered around writing a ten-minute play. Rebecca Reynolds, a guest playwright, led a workshop on the ten-minute play, which would be given a cold reading by the professional actors at the gathering. Following each reading, the resident company members--actors, guest playwrights, artistic directors, and dramaturgs--were invited to comment on the play's structure and potential marketability.

Since I live in Minot, North Dakota, a city not close to any professional theatre activity except for educational and community theatre, the gathering offered a chance to meet four personal goals: to increase my knowledge about play-writing, to gain an understanding about the professional aspects of play-writing, to develop a dialogue with other playwrights, and to receive a professional critique of my own play-writing. The conference met all four goals.

(A production of Just Two For Dinner Tonight?, the ten-minute play I wrote for the Bigfork workshop, is scheduled for production in Dallas in July, as part of ShortFest '93. The artistic director of Pegasus Theatre in Dallas, also in attendance at Bigfork, saw the play, then wrote within a few weeks of the gathering to inquire about a possible production. I jumped at the opportunity.

Had I not attended the gathering I probably would not have written the play, I most certainly would not have had the change to hear my play read by professionals [that was another first for me and an event I'll remembers for a long time], and a professional artistic director would not have seen the play and offered a production.)

I encourage other playwrights, especially those separated from major theatrical activity by great distance, to take advantage of the annual gathering at Bigfork.

For more information contact: Muffie Thompson, The Gathering at Bigfork, Box 1230, Bigfork, Montana 59911.