Berkshire Playwrights Lab: Living room to the stage


GREAT BARRINGTON -- "I think I may have something for you," Matthew Penn recalls playwright, screenwriter and comedienne Elaine May telling him over the telephone.

That "something" is a new full-length play and it will be given its first reading anywhere Saturday evening at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

The play is the centerpiece of Berkshire Playwrights Lab's season-opening New Play Benefit Gala. The evening also includes readings of short plays by Richard Dreseer, Matt Hoverman, Kevin Snipes, Peter Mattei and BPL co-founder Joe Cacaci, among others.

Also on tap is the screening of the Lab's fundraising video, which features Lauren Ambrose, Dan Lauria, Wendie Malick and Treat Williams.

There will be a post-performance reception for premium ticketholders at the Castle Street Café, next to the theater.

Penn -- an actor, producer and director who worked on the TV series "Law & Order" for several seasons -- and May -- whose credits include the screenplays for "Heaven Can Wait," "The Birdcage," and "Primary Colors" -- have known each other more than 40 years. She happens to be a big fan of "Law & Order," Penn said in a telephone interview, and Penn's late father, stage and film director Arthur Penn, directed "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May" on Broadway decades ago.

Penn said the idea of bringing a new Elaine May play to the Berkshires surfaced during an informal conversation at a dinner party.

"I don't know. Let me think about it," Penn recalls May having said at the time. When he called her back in April, her response, Penn said, was "I think I may have something for you."

Founded in 2007 by Penn, Jim Frangione, Joe Cacaci and Bob Jaffe, Berkshire Playwrights Lab mounted its first season in the summer of 2008. In the years since, BPL has presented more than 25 short and 30 full-length plays

BPL's season comprises a series of free Wednesday night staged readings at the Mahaiwe of new plays that have never been seen or heard anywhere else, performed by well-known professional actors.

"It's an opportunity for playwrights to find out what is and isn't working with their new plays," Penn said. "We wanted to create a setting in which writers can take their first step with a new work; get a sense of where they want to take their new play."

Few scripts are sent cold to Penn and his partners.

"Between us," Penn said, "we know a lot of people."

Among those people is Jane Anderson ("Defying Gravity," "The Baby Dance") whose new play about St. John, told from the perspective of his mother, will be read at BPL's first regular season program on July 2. Tina Packer is in the leading role.

"The gala is a fun night for us," Penn said. What follows through the summer is a season of plays, long and short, that are taking, Penn says, "that first step from living room to the stage."


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