Key Exchange

Reserve some time between September 21 and October 2, drive to the southernmost part of Florida, and experience the only significant gathering of new play productions, play readings, and theatrical workshops in this area. I'm referring, of course, to the Key West Theatre Festival. I could moan about the fact that Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties don't stage such an event, but why concentrate on a half-empty glass?

"I don't want only MTV for the rest of my life," says the festival's new artistic director, Joan McGillis, mother of film star Kelly (Top Gun, The Accused) and a noted educator-director in her own right. "This festival intends to discover new playwrights and further new works, so the theater can stay alive."

Actually it was her famous daughter who lured McGillis to Key West last year, insisting that mom "would be surprised at the number of theaters in this town." The older McGillis, who holds a master's degree in directing from the University of California at Irvine and was president of the board of the famed Laguna Playhouse in California, had been considering retiring to Florida but didn't want to leave a thriving dramatic community on the West Coast. However, after much prodding from Kelly (who also lives in Key West), McGillis made the move, loved the town, and decided against retirement. Almost immediately she was offered the job of running the festival.

While she credits the fest's previous artistic director, Nancy Holtkamp, for doing fine work, McGillis has made some changes. First off there will be fewer full productions and more play readings this year. "Joan and I wanted to keep it simpler," explains administrative director Elaine Chinnis, "and at the same time use more locations and offer more daytime workshops." McGillis, Chinnis, and ten other readers perused hundreds of scripts over eleven months to come up with this year's lineup of ten productions and eight readings. Amateur submissions were not encouraged. "We solicited through agents and through the New Dramatists group in New York," explains Chinnis. "After this year we hope to gain grant support," adds McGillis, who points out that it was everyone's intention to keep the quality as high as possible.

The resultant stew of drama and comedy deals with a dizzying range of subjects, from Cuban exiles to Fatty Arbuckle, from the McCarthy hearings to literary agents. Naturally many of the plays concern relationships, particularly those within families. "Subconsciously I must have been drawn to a few plays about aging," McGillis says with a laugh, "since I'm getting to that point in life."

For the first time in its three-year history, the festival will present plays during the day and evening, giving audience members a chance to see more productions. This was not the case last year, when performances were held only at 8:00 p.m. Additionally, several practical daytime workshops are on the new schedule. Television and screen star Jennifer O'Neill (Summer of '42) will teach "Screen Acting Techniques" on Saturday, September 24; actor Jack Poggi will teach "Monologues" on Sunday, September 25; and Michael Gellman, from Chicago's Second City Theater, will offer a workshop entitled "Improvisations" on Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2. Also on October 1 and 2, Jeffrey Sweet, winner of the Writers Guild of America Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for his plays, will reprise his hit from last year's fest, a two-day playwriting workshop.

Of the plays afforded full productions, there are several you likely won't want to miss. Eduardo Machado's Once Removed concerns the trials, torments, and triumphs of a Cuban family after they migrate to the U.S. in 1961. (Four of Machado's other plays will be presented this fall in Los Angeles under the group heading The Floating Island Plays.) Machado also has contributed dialogue to such films as Scarface and The Perez Family, and is currently scripting Exiles in New York City, which stars Whoopi Goldberg.

Also try to catch Tennessee's Rose, Daniel Du Plantis's searing take on the dysfunctional family of former Key West resident Tennessee Williams. Du Plantis has won a plethora of theater-writing awards, and his plays have been presented in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., and Houston's Alley Theatre. Off-Broadway writer-director Ron Marquette's A Day in Court is based on a true story A the persecution of actor Larry Parks at the hands of Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch-hunting posse.

Television, stage, and novel writer Barry Jay Kaplan is represented by two plays: Love in the Afternoon is about a clandestine love affair, while Bananas and Water examines a family forced to confront death. In Waiting for the Dough, New York City acting coach and writer Edwin R. Gilweit satirizes Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by turning the main characters into a book agent and an entertainment agent. A children's production of Pyramus and Thisbe takes a comedic look at the story contained within the text of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Celebrated stage and screen writer Julie Jensen is the author of Sweet Tuesday Falls, a brutal portrait of a small-town woman who can't accept her son's emotional problems.

Gary N. Carden, who has written for the stage and for PBS, explores the relationship between an orphaned man and his eccentric grandmother in The Raindrop Waltz; and in External Pressure, Theodore Shell, a Miami native, dissects the downfall of comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, pivotal figure in a notorious 1920s Hollywood sex-murder scandal. If all this isn't enough, there are staged readings of plays about drug abuse, bisexuality, B-movie stars, dwarfs, yuppie hostages, and ghosts.

Nonproduction events include the festival's "Opening Gala," September 21, at the Pier House Caribbean Spa; a "Meet the Playwrights" party, September 24, at the Top at La Concha, Holiday Inn; and "Three Minute Worlds," an improvisational battle of words between performance poets from around the country, September 25, at the Blue Heaven restaurant.

The festival will utilize nine separate locations for its plays, readings, and seminars: the Waterfront Playhouse at Mallory Square; the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center on Stock Island; the Red Barn Theatre at 319 Duval St.; the San Carlos Institute at 516 Duval St.; Old City Hall at 510 Green St.; the Top at La Concha, Holiday Inn at 430 Duval St.; Florida Keys Community College, on Stock Island; Pier House Caribbean Spa at 1 Duval St.; and the Blue Heaven Restaurant at the corner of Petronia and Thomas streets.

"We wanted to try some site-specific theater," explains Chinnis. "So the courtroom drama [A Day in Court], for example, will be presented in City Hall."

"I think this festival will be especially good for local actors and audiences," notes McGillis, pointing to the variety of workshops and productions. "This is the perfect setting to immerse yourself in theater." She admits that she never has organized a festival before and has been "shooting from the hip" much of the time, aided only by a small staff. Still, she hopes to do it again next year, and eventually to build the festival into one of the country's most significant dramatic events. "It's a wonderful challenge," McGillis says. "Key West has reinvented me."

If you're tired of revivals, glitzy road shows, and much of the overdone material that keeps circulating around South Florida, get on U.S. 1 and drive on down. Key West aims to revitalize your interest in theater. The sunset's not bad, either.

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