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Z Space presents:

Problematic Play Festival

October 3-6, 2019 at Z Below

Z Space is proud (and still, a little nervous) to present the second annual Problematic Play Festival.

The staged reading series will present three ambitious and provocative plays that have been deemed “problematic” by certain theater industry gatekeepers (producers, artistic directors, literary managers, funders) due to content believed to be too offensive or controversial to produce. Each staged reading will include facilitated discussions with the playwrights, actors, directors, and audience.

Throughout this process and festival, we are asking two key questions: What makes a play too “problematic” to produce? What do each of us (individually as audiences, artists, and producers) mean by “problematic”?

In 2018, the inaugural year of the festival, we tackled the subject of “problematic” plays in the broadest sense. Through an open submission process, we selected three plays: Phosphorescence by Cory Hinkle, Ripped by Rachel Bublitz, and Refuge by Rachel Lynett. The three pieces could be seen as "problematic" for very different reasons, containing such “problematic” challenges as presenting graphic violence and nudity on stage, telling a story about the gray areas around consent and coercion, and confronting transphobia and polyphobia within the queer community. We learned how to hold space for each of those conversations. Local dramaturg Maddie Gaw covered the event in this HowlRound article: What’s Problematic, the Play or the Process?.

In 2019, the second year of the festival, we are specifically interested in exploring comedy in theater. With recent governmental policies and practices that threaten marginalized groups, many theaters have trended towards work that responds, corrects, heals, or educates, “positioning themselves as first responders in a time of political and humanitarian upheaval (Washington Post).” Other theaters have advocated for absurdist and comedic work, arguing that “what we really need to do is take a step back to understand what is going on in the whole of society – and in ourselves. And it is theatrical comedy that opens up this way of thinking (Theatre Times).” How does comedy fit into this social justice movement? Who is allowed to laugh at something within the current political climate? Is there a privilege in the ability to joke? Can the act of joking make something more or less “problematic”?  

Submission Guidelines

Playwrights must be willing to be physically present for the festival to discuss their play with a facilitator and audience. If you are interested in submitting your play and being part of this conversation, please prepare the following:

  1. Script of your un-produced “problematic” comedic play.

  2. One page explanation of who you are, why you wrote the play, what makes the play “problematic” to you or to others, and what you might want to discuss with an audience. Please specifically address the use of comedy in your play.

  3. Optional: one rejection letter from a gatekeeper (artistic director, literary manager, major institution, foundation officer, etc.) that address why the script has been rejected. Please do not submit generic rejection letters.

  4. Optional: one letter from someone who read your play and really “gets” it.

Please attach all documents as a single PDF and email to ppf@zspace.org by May 1, 2019. Notifications will be sent by August 15, 2019. Only one submission per playwright will be considered.

Note: If your play is “problematic” due to scope, form, or production elements (maybe it takes place underwater, there are no words, and the actors must wear roller blades) it is unfortunately NOT a fit for this festival. We are specifically looking at “problematic” in terms of content and themes.

The Process and Vision

The idea of the festival originated from discussions between Rose Oser and playwright Jake Jeppson about the tension that exists in the American Theater between wanting to create meaningful work that speaks to our society’s truths while also being wary of material that offends our sensibilities as practitioners and audience members alike.

To unpack that tension, we began asking what it means for work to be “problematic.” It turns out the answer isn’t an easy one to find. So then we had a second idea: what if we gathered plays that had been deemed “problematic” by the theater community and investigated what it was about those plays that caused gatekeepers to turn away from them in favor of other material.

Of course, we have faced our own complications throughout the process as we encounter the opportunities and challenges of producing “problematic” works. We are pushing ourselves as an organization while acknowledging the limitations of our company and our responsibilities as a non-profit theater. This festival is as much a scrutiny of our own systems as it is of any other.

The 2019 steering committee: Abigail Pañares, Radhika Rao, Rebecca Struch, Stephanie Wilborn, Jake Jeppson, Rose Oser, and Shafer Mazow.

If you have questions about the festival, please email Associate Artistic Director Rose Oser at roser@zspace.org.

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