It all started because Michael Shaw and Dezart Performs co-founder Daniela Ryan wanted to bring more new live theater to the Coachella Valley.
In those first days of what would become the Play Reading Festival, performances were held in a small art gallery. Shaw and Ryan would solicit new scripts from friends and colleagues, and once a month, they would choose one play, cast it, find a director, and present a staged reading—charging just $5 a head. So attendees remained invested in the whole process, each audience member was given ballots to grade each play. After seven months, Dezart tallied up the grades, and the play receiving the highest score was produced as the company’s first show the following season.
Fast-forward to today, and the procedure for the Seventh Annual Play Reading Festival, which takes place April 3-11, is much more formalized: Every fall, Dezart puts out a national call for submissions, and receives between 110 and 125 scripts; last year, Dezart even received entries from Australia and Canada. The scripts get divvied up among a team of 15 readers; they go through several rounds of scoring, and the number of scripts is narrowed down to about 25, which Shaw himself reads. Shaw then passes them on to a colleague, and the two of them choose the five to seven finalists.
With both the Play Reading Festival and Dezart Performs’ other productions, Shaw is not willing to settle when it comes to quality, he said. He admitted that he occasionally ruffles feathers—like, for example, when he refuses to cast friends in parts for which they are not right.
“Here in the valley, just like with theater in Los Angeles, there’s some really good stuff, and there’s some really bad stuff,” Shaw said. “But the passion’s always there. You can walk into any theater in the valley and see the passion. That’s fabulous, but passion can only take you so far.”
Other important factors in Dezart’s success include selecting only special material, and knowing the Dezart Performs audience. Some audience members have been shocked or offended by some of Dezart’s more controversial offerings, he said, including the recent 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Shaw doesn’t mind that, as long as each play gets people thinking and talking.
Shaw believes the five plays in this year’s Play Reading Festival will do just that:
• Miss Prindle’s Summer Session (Friday, April 3) is a 10-minute comedy by John Lordan. In it, a mother sends her middle-age son back to summer school to study with his retired grammar-school teacher. It’s one of three plays in the festival that Shaw is directing.
• The Golden Boots (Friday, April 3) is a one-act comedy by James Rosenfield, based on a true story. A few hours before a reception for Joseph II of Austria, Catherine the Great learns that her lover, the adjutant general, has seduced her best friend. The empress demands that a new adjutant general be chosen in time for the reception.
• Suicide Dogs (Saturday, April 4), by Jess Honovich, is a comedy-drama. Also directed by Shaw, the play’s story revolves around Amelia, who flies her family to Florida to prepare for her brother’s funeral after his suicide. What she’s not expecting is that she will now be responsible for her late brother’s famous and sick dog.
• Above Water (Friday, April 10) is a drama by Bob Clyman. It’s the story of two middle-age couples who have vacationed together for years. The play begins as the group is on vacation for the first time since one of the wives has died of cancer. The husband has brought along his much younger girlfriend—to the chagrin of the other wife, who was very close to the cancer victim.
• The final play in the festival is drama Cat and Mouse (Saturday, April 11), by Michael E. Wolfson, and also directed by Michael Shaw. Stan and Larry, who have known each other since elementary school, re-connect at a dinner party. One of them ropes the other into a life gamble; the third character in the play is a woman who’s the object of the competition.
This year’s playwrights hail from New Jersey, Chicago, Sacramento and Los Angeles.
The festival features local actors Yo Younger, Garnett Smith, Daniela Ryan, Adina Lawson, Valerie Armstrong, Blanche Mickelson and Scott Smith. Adina Lawson and Joan McGillis each direct one play. As always, the audience will get a chance to vote on which play gets a full production next season.
Like all Dezart shows, the Play Reading Festival takes place at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. It has been a great home for Dezart Performs for the past few years, but Shaw said the company is growing out of it. One of Shaw’s dreams is to renovate an old church and transform it into a theater; another is to create a performing arts center in Palm Springs that several groups could utilize.
Whatever happens, the area’s theater community is better off thanks to Dezart Performs and its annual festival.
Dezart Performs’ Seventh Annual Play Reading Festival takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 3 through 11, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $10, or $34 for all four nights. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.