Starting Friday and wrapping up in early September, the festival's 30th anniversary season will present seven new works, staged at five theaters in the area. It's the culmination of an annual effort to shine a spotlight on local playwrights, an effort that started with the Vagabond Players, the country's oldest community theater.
"The Vagabonds kept getting all these scripts from playwrights and didn't know what to do with them," said Miriam Bazensky, vice chair of the festival. "So they started producing them. More theaters joined them. The core theaters in the festival's early years were Vagabonds, Spotlighters and Fells Point Corner Theatre."
The long list of companies that have participated in the festival has a couple of additions this summer: Red Branch Theatre Company and Heralds of Hope Theatre Company.
Playwrights with a claim to local roots are eligible to submit work.
"The joke used to be that if you only flew over Maryland once, you'd qualify," Bazensky said. "That wasn't true, but we laughed over it. Actually, the playwrights must have resided at one time in Maryland or D.C."
There were 72 submissions for the 2011 festival. Starting in November, teams of area teachers, actors and other theater-savvy folks recruited by the festival began poring over the scripts in marathon reading sessions.
"It's all very subjective," Bazensky said, "so we have at least three readers per play. I read one this year that I thought was brilliant, but the two others did not. Plays are evaluated with grades from 1 to 4, with 4 being 'ask the playwright to rewrite it.' I tell readers to ask themselves if a play is written well, if the characters are clearly defined; does it have a beginning, middle and end — an arc."
The whittling-down process was completed by mid-March.
"The Baltimore Playwrights Festival does not select the plays that will be staged," Bazensky said. "We make a list of recommended plays we feel might fit theaters. They can select anything they want. Sometimes, more than one theater wants the same play. They work it out."
Actors were auditioned for the festival in April ("That's where the bloodletting really starts," Bazensky said with a laugh); the actors listed the plays they most wanted to perform in. Finally, the seven chosen plays were matched to theaters, and the theaters selected the casts.
That this process has been going on for three decades now says a lot about the festival's appeal. Aspiring playwrights don't stand to earn big prizes by submitting their work for evaluation — a jury will award a $250 top prize after all the productions are over — but the chance they might see their work fully realized onstage is a powerful draw.
"That's the main thing, getting these plays produced, more highly profiled," Bazensky said. "We want to get these playwrights' voices heard."
Even those who don't make the final cut receive something for their effort.
"They get evaluations back, not just a 'sorry, you weren't accepted,'" Bazensky said. "And if you aren't selected this year, you may be accepted next year or two years down the road."
The public gains something, too — the chance to experience fresh talent.
"Audiences are in for a treat this year," Bazensky said. "The plays are very diverse, well-written, with interesting characters. It's clearly an interesting season. I urge people to see everything."