Two years ago, when novelist and playwright Lenore Skomal and her husband Rick Sayers, a retired newspaper editor from Connecticut, mentioned to me that they wanted to start their own theatre festival, I instantly had the sense that not only would they accomplish it, but that they would do so with style, and in a manner that would redefine the festival scene in New York. Keep in mind that at the time there were quite a few festivals competing for new material and offering various twists to the old theatre festival formula. Some were actually more like competitions, one championed causes, yet another did only shorts, while one of the biggest was famous for musicals. At the top rung, there was the king of all festivals, the Fringe NYC, a local incarnation of a global brand that to this day produces theatre festivals all across the globe and at one time would bring as many as 200+ productions to more than 20 venues throughout New York City. All of it was happening year round with the bulk of the productions taking place during the Summer months. Realistically, someone should have talked these two out of thinking that they could "just start a festival." But no one did. For the longest time, they were asking the right questions, thinking from the perspective of the playwright, and considering all the gaps other festivals might be missing. They also immediately surrounded themselves with experts and went to work. To hear them talk, there was no doubt that they were diving into deep waters. But it was also clear that these folks could swim. And swim they did.
In its second year, the festival landscape has changed. MITF (Midtown International Theatre Festival) is gone. The Fringe NYC has a completely new plan that focuses more on the boroughs, and plays in the Fall instead of the Summer, and the BBTF is going strong, doing great with early tickets sales, and getting ready to begin year two, again at the beautiful 14th Street Y Theater (don't be fooled by the idea of shows produced at a YMCA. This venue is modern, sleek, beautiful and state of the art.) We had the opportunity to ask the BBTF about year two and this is what they had to say.
Q: The debut of The BBTF in 2017 was filled with surprises, and some great success. How would you describe that first festival year, and what did you learn?
Lenore Skomal: It's impossible to quantify how much we learned that first year. Even though we had a seasoned team rife with festival experience, we were surprised multiple times with last minute emergencies, such as playwrights needing our help to replace their own team members, box office confusion, 11th hour mishaps--all of which only proved to us our own ability to handle whatever was thrown at us with grace, efficiency and professionalism--three key components to having a successful run.
Q: In your second year of the festival, we see you've added some readings to the schedule. What's different for 2018? What can we expect to see that's new?
Lenore Skomal: Like last year, we had several submissions where our panel felt the bones of the plays were solid, but they needed more work. It then occurred to me: Instead of just sending back a critique, why not offer these playwrights the opportunity to be a part of the festival as a reading, as opposed to a full three-performance run? They could take advantage of everything we give to our playwrights in terms of training, hands on support, tutorials and marketing, but use it toward hosting a professional staged reading. We call it the Incubator Reading Series. And participants in this inaugural year can be guaranteed a spot in our 2019 lineup, if their revised script passes muster.
Q: Already ticket sales sales seem to be much better than in 2017. Why do you think that is. What have you done differently.
Lenore Skomal: We have a group of playwrights who truly want their plays to be seen by sellout audiences. That been the driving force behind ticket sales. We're also enjoying the wake from our successful first season. We've cultivated an audience of regular theatergoers who know we have outstanding works on our stage for affordable prices and they should expect nothing less.
Q: What do you think makes BBTF unique compared to the many other festivals out there? How are you different in terms of selecting your plays, and what do you look for in a BBTF submission?
Lenore Skomal: I have no idea how other NYC festivals select plays, so I can't speak to that. The system I put into place, plus the critiques the playwrights get with their submission, helps us cull through the plays in as objective a manner as possible. Subjectivity really has very little to do with our process. What we look for is pretty simple: Complete works that exhibit a measure of talent and an understanding of playwriting structure. We're not wed to conventionality--we are of the opinion that if you choose to break the rules, you'd better know them first. More importantly than the work itself, I also interview the finalists via telephone. We are looking for a very particular type of playwright--someone willing to do the work of a producer, as well.
Q: In your opinion, what's the biggest challenges playwrights have these days? How do you address those challenges?
Lenore Skomal: This industry is in flux, not unlike the book publishing industry. The reason we started BBTF is to provide a support for the playwright because the way that business is being conducted is changing--and we suspect, for good. We don't ask the playwrights to do anything that we haven't already done as playwrights and creatives ourselves. Anything we share in terms of information has been proven to work by our own experience. It's that credo that's pushing me to put my latest play THE EXES on Off Broadway for a successful run next summer. I'm the guinea pig. And I'm documenting everything I do from developing investors, to hiring an entertainment lawyer and a consulting team, to picking a venue, casting the play, negotiating contracts--you name it. I teach by example. So when you ask about challenges that playwrights face? From where I sit as a playwright myself, I see the primary challenge as lack of empowerment. By hoping and praying someone will produce your work, which is the old model, you are in a powerless position. By learning how to do it yourself, at the very least, you have knowledge and that is power. And you also have something else--the ability to do it yourself. That's real power. That's what BBTF can teach you.
Q: In terms of types of plays, or genres, what can we look forward to this Summer at BBTF? Any highly anticipated work you would like to preview for us?
Lenore Skomal: We're kicking off our season with the true life story of young John Lennon, which we're really excited about. We have several poignant straight plays that toy with gripping themes such as reincarnation, life after death, suicide, and even assassination. There's no shortage of compelling relationship dramas, including two brothers with radically different politics trying to find middle ground, a grieving daughter returning to Israel for her father's funeral only to find it's not what she believed it to be and a metaphorical play about a newlywed couple forced to look at whether or not they should even been married. We have a dark comedy about a debaucherous Florida retirement community, a drama about a pop star's ultimate demise at the hands of her own social media, a whimsical piece about a rural community that wakes up to a crop circle, and a beautifully crafted work about a Yazidi woman in a refugee camp. And for the first time ever, our first play for young audiences, called CARROTS, the story of Peter Rabbit, which we are very excited about.
Q: Long term, say in 2019 and beyond, where do you envision the BBTF headed? What can we expect from BBTF in the near future and several years down the line?
Lenore Skomal: Our model is always changing. Every year it changes and grows to meet the needs of the industry and its playwrights. I suspect, in keeping with our overall mission and impact statement, we will continue to be the one festival that provides experiential learning to playwrights interested in being empowered. There are many opportunities here in NYC to learn about producing a play. Plenty of people will take your money to educate you. We are the only outlet that not only educates you, but does so by having you do it yourself, with our complete support. That's experiential learning.
Q: As a festival producer, any special advice or message you would like to send out to playwrights out there?
Lenore Skomal: Be ready to learn and roll up your sleeves to do the work. A successful festival experience isn't for those who want to hand off their work to someone else and have it produced. With BBTF, there's a learning curve that is there for a reason and will serve you in the future. It's also enormously gratifying and intrinsically satisfying.