In Tel Aviv a man is falling in love with a prostitute. She is skeptical. As he attempts to woo her, pay her and plead with her to speak with him honestly, she slowly begins to relent. But her confessions are jarring.
This is the premise of Andrew R. Heinze’s “Masha: Conditions in the Holy Land,” the Jury Prize winner for this year’s The Seven. Now poetically in its seventh year, the new works festival is one of Fusion Theatre Company’s most popular recurring events. Every year, Fusion puts out a call for new short plays. The only conditions are that the pieces can’t have already been produced, they can be no longer than 10 pages and they have to conform to a theme, which changes with each festival. This year, the defining thread is “nothing is as it seems.”
Fusion Executive Director Dennis Gromelski says theme selection is part of the fun for people on the company's email list. It starts with a request for suggestions. This round, the company received 250. Management then narrows that number down to seven and asks the company’s patrons to vote on the final theme that will be produced.
The festival received 70 plays in its first year. It’s grown remarkably, says Gromelski, and this time it took in 748 plays from 43 states and nine countries. That adds up to three months of work for Jenny Grigg, the festival’s primary reader, whose kitchen table is smothered in dialogue for a quarter of the year. Once Grigg winnows it down and Gromelski carves out just a little more, the final 21 entries are scored by four judges. The whole process is conducted anonymously, so none of the judges know which participants they’ve voted for until the end.
The Seven started as a way to identify and encourage emerging playwrights. The idea was to “find the best that was out there to ultimately develop full-length scripts,” Gromelski says. After the winners have their shorts produced in the festival, they're invited to turn in longer works. Those pieces are considered for both a reading series and full stage production.
Although all seven shorts that show in the festival are winners, two special prizes are handed out—a Jury Prize, selected by the judges, in which the recipient gets free travel and lodging, and an Audience Choice award. Fusion promotes these double winners to other festivals like Samuel French Off Off Broadway in New York, where they’re often picked up and produced as well.
Two years ago, Fusion’s submission to OOB, “The Education of Macoloco” by Jen Silverman, won the festival. “That was terrific,” says Gromelski, “because now she’s on Samuel French’s radar, and she’s proceeded to show it around the world.”
Along with Heinze’s “Masha,” this year’s round of winners includes “Guess What?” by Paul Lewis, “Daryl Hannah” by Crish Barth, “Happy” by Amy Cuomo, “Ceasefire” by Ken Kaissar, “The Return Engagement” by Eric Eberwein and “The Last Night at Manuela’s” by Buffy Aakaash.
At least four of the playwrights will be in town for the festival, so Fusion is hosting a talk-back session on opening night. Audience members will also have a chance to meet the playwrights at that night’s reception.
Gromelski is hesitant to give away much information about the pieces themselves, preferring for audiences to be surprised, but he hints that it’s well worth the suspense. “It’s a rewarding experience,” he says. “Odds are, some of these pieces are going to resonate with you.”