WILMINGTON — A group of local playwrights finished 11 original plays over the last year to showcase their first production of 2021, “The Power of One: A Virtual Monologue.” The writers are part of Port City Playwrights’ Project (PCPP), which usually hosts two productions annually, one in spring and one in fall, either at Cape Fear Playhouse or Thalian Hall’s black box theater.
The group staged six shorts in “10-Minute Miscelleny” last February before Covid-19 put an end to mass-congregate events. However, the writers kept creating, and once PCPP applied for a grant from the NC Arts Council, they were able to fund a new way to get their works out — as a virtual screening.
“We needed to figure something out that we could do that was going to be safe,” said Elizabeth Gordon, executive director of PCPP. “And we knew we would not put actors together on a stage and have them breathing all over each other.”
Gordon had been watching how writers, actors, directors and producers were reacting to the coronavirus shutting down live theater across the nation. She saw well-known performers like Adam Driver, Rebecca Naomi Jones and André De Shields take to the screen to produce monologues, and thought it would be a good approach for her 12-member group.
“We’ve always had outside jurors select which writings to stage,” she detailed, “but we were thinking, ‘You know, we’re all stressed out right now. It’s like the first pandemic in our lives. We need to write.’ We just figured everyone who writes a script will get in.”
Through the summer they began workshopping plays via Zoom instead of meeting face-to-face. The writers assigned roles for the group to read the works aloud, then afterward they hosted formal discussions. Gordon said they asked four questions of every workshopped script: What is working? What is not working? Do the readers have questions for the writer? Does the writer have questions for the readers?
“They’re meant to be questions to elicit comments that are going to be helpful in the revision process,” Gordon explained. “We look at what is interesting, engaging — what stands out. Were there parts too slow, where you lost interest? And why — the whys are really important: Why did he choose to have the person say this at this point, why did she go there or do that? It’s really all about revising, right? Making it better.”
Once the scripts were tweaked, the filming process began. PCPP chose directors and actors, both of whom were paid, to work together remotely to rehearse and eventually film the monologues. Gordon said most were recorded on iPhones, though a couple directors used better equipment.
“You can see a difference in the ones that actually used motion-picture cameras,” she said. “And some are a little bit grainy because some people would use their laptops.”
Each short monologue, usually around 10 minutes or so, deals with modern-day issues. Lee Mehler’s “Alexa … Play Hamilton” takes on a sassy virtual assistant who questions its user’s taste in music and pop culture, as well as life choices. Rose Mary Harrington’s “Deeds Not Words” centers on women’s and men’s roles from the view of a 1920’s suffragette. Don Wood’s “King of the Road” follows an enlightened, Elon University-grad panhandler who fulfills more than a beggarly role on a street corner.
“A couple of the writers chose to deal with Covid, and I thought it was interesting how differently they were handled,” she said. “‘Covid Incognito’ is about a bandit who suddenly finds that everyone is masked, so him being masked really makes it hard for him to be a bandit.”
The other one, “Yeah, I Was There,” is less a comedy and more horror.
“It is told from the point of view of the coronavirus,” Gordon said. “So Coronavirus speaks to us and tells us how she has been waiting all these thousands of years for someone to finally say her name. And now the whole world is saying it and facing her horror.”
Gordon also has a piece in the show, “Tell Me.” It’s her tenth play over the last five years, as she made the switch from poet to playwright. The story came from the social unrest over the summer after the George Floyd protests and manifested out of Gordon’s processing of the events.
“I was writing at the height of all these horrendous police shootings,” she said, “and it was in my consciousness. I also have a friend who identifies as being neurodivergent. Basically, it’s someone who’s on the spectrum and their brain works a little bit differently.”
She started hearing a character among these life-threatening situations and the writing took off really. “This character just came out,” Gordon said. “And I knew exactly who I wanted to do the role.”
Gordon chose Katrina Hargrave to perform the monologue, and former PCPP executive director Susan Steadman directed it virtually from western North Carolina. Gordon admits the play tends to be “dark and heavy,” yet she said it adds to the variety of genres overall seen in the show.
“I think it’s just like any kind of short play festival,” she said of “The Power of One.” “If you don’t like one monologue, just wait 10 minutes. The next one is probably going to be your cup of tea.”
Gordon and her tech adviser, Kayla Hager, handled all editing; Hager also did the lighting. It’s been an eye-opening experience that is going to lead to another show in the spring, as the group has grant funds left over, with a stipulation that it must be used by May 31.
“Even though our title is Port City Playwrights, our actual description is that we are a group of screenwriters and playwrights, and we’ve never done screenplays before until now,” Gordon said. “And, of course, even though this ends up being film, some of them look like plays on film.”
It’s an exciting, even unexpected and challenging shift for the group — one that wasn’t expected almost a year ago. For the writers, they get to learn a new format, which in turn will make their craft more comprehensive.
“With a screenplay, you’re running things like exteriors more—all these little nuances,” Gordon explained. “There’s different tools in the toolbox as a writer. One thing that’s lost in theater are small details. But let’s say a character has a very meaningful tattoo on the left shoulder. In a screenplay, you can write it and close in on it with a camera, so it makes you think differently about how you want to tell the story and what the audience gets to see. We’re going to be really forced to grow, which I think is healthy. We have to always continue to grow.”
Gordon predicted it could evolve their output even after the normalcy of live events picks up again. She already has her eyes on producing Port City Shorts — a film festival: “Maybe we’ll even make each movie have some connection to Wilmington.”
As part of PCPP’s commitment to provide low-cost original works to the community, “The Power of One: A Virtual Monologue,” is free (though donations are welcome) to watch through Jan. 10. Registration is required.
To join the playwright group, dues are $24 a year to have works workshopped. However, anyone can sit in on meetings.
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