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Topher Payne had been writing plays for more than 10 years, but hardly anyone outside of Atlanta was seeing them. That’s not a slight against Payne—his work has received many awards and accolades over the years—but when you’re embedded in a regional theater scene, it’s hard to break out to a national audience.
Born in Mississippi, Payne moved to Atlanta in 1999 and quickly built a following. “With a near-constant output of broadly appealing plays often written specifically for Atlanta audiences, the self-described ‘goofy ginger’ has built up a faithful core of local fans for his clever, zingy Southern comedies,” Creative Loafing wrote of Payne last year, in a review of one of his recent plays, Angry Fags.
He’s something of a superstar in Georgia’s capital city, but for a while, he felt like his work would never reach a broader audience. “I carved out a nice little spot for myself in the Atlanta theater community,” Payne says, “but I was facing the same struggle a lot of regional playwrights experience, where you can launch a production in your home market, but that’s about it. If you’re a playwright who’s not basically working in NYC or L.A., you’re working without representation, and without representation, you can’t get your script to anyone outside of your own market.”
But in 2013, he got his big break. His script for Perfect Arrangement, a biting satire set in the 1950s about a pair of closeted State Department employees tasked with outing suspected homosexuals within the agency, was selected to be produced for D.C.’s Source Festival, now in its ninth year.
Perfect Arrangement was a smash hit, thanks in no small part to the timing of its debut: The Supreme Court struck down key sections of the Defense of Marriage Act during its run. “We went from being a topical play to a very topical play,” Payne says. “It was the first time Source extended a play; there was such an audience demand to see it.”
Perfect Arrangement’s success didn’t stop with sold-out shows at that year’s Source Festival. In 2014, the American Theatre Critics Association named it best new play by an emerging playwright. “That led me to a whole new theater crowd, which led me to New York, which led me to an Off-Broadway production, which led to the script getting a publisher,” Payne says.
It might sound like a too-perfect narrative for Payne’s career—years spent cranking out plays that would never be seen outside of Atlanta, until the Source Festival gave him a shot—but that’s how he frames it. “That’s how I got my agent and everything started happening,” Payne says. “You want to believe that everything doesn’t happen because of a lucky break, and there are certainly arguments to say that it isn’t, but for me, it did.”
But Payne’s story isn’t unique. For the past nine years, the Source Festival has evolved from a homegrown local theater showcase to a nationally recognized festival. It’s become known for helping new and emerging playwrights—or veterans like Payne who’ve been sequestered in their regional markets—break through to the next level. And for more established playwrights, it’s an invaluable opportunity to try out their latest work in front of an audience.
On a recent muggy Friday afternoon, scores of sweaty people walk by Source on 14th Street NW. Inside, the air conditioning is blasting, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the Source Festival crew members, who are perspiring heavily as they set up this year’s iteration. It officially kicked off on June 8 and runs until July 3.
Jenny McConnell Frederick, the festival’s artistic director, leads me on a tour of the stage and backstage area, which will host three full-length plays, 18 10-minute plays culled from more than 500 submissions, and three “Artistic Blind Dates”—workshops in which artists from different disciplines are randomly paired with each other to collaborate on original work over a six-month period.
It’s a lot for a theater festival, especially one that takes place on a single stage (which means the festival’s producers need to create sets that can easily be broken down after each performance). But that’s how the Source Festival has always done it.
From 1977 until the early aughts, Source was home to the Source Theatre Company, one of the most prominent in the District. During that time, they hosted an annual summer event called the Washington Theatre Festival. “It was very guerilla theater,” Frederick recalls of the festival.
But in the late ’90s, the company ran into financial problems. They ceased productions in 2002 and legally disbanded in 2006, leaving their 14th Street home on the market. In October of that year, local arts nonprofit CulturalDC bought the building, renovated it, and made it a shared arts space. As part of their agreement with Source Theatre Company, CulturalDC had to keep the Washington Theatre Festival going, in one form or another.
“When we bought the building, we had a kind of handshake agreement with the leadership of Source Theatre Company that we would continue some sort of summer festival,” Frederick says.
A year prior, another guerilla-style summer theater festival popped up in the District—Capital Fringe. That posed a different kind of challenge for CulturalDC: How do you start a summer theater festival that doesn’t compete with Fringe?
The big difference between the Source Festival and Fringe, Frederick says, “is that everything [Source] does is curated,” with about 100 readers helping to select plays, whereas with Fringe, almost anyone can submit a play and put on a production.
“With the Fringe Festival, you have to have a team of collaborators on a project and you come there and you get to put it on and there’s an amazing set of resources around that,” Frederick adds. “For us, if you’re new to town or new to school and you don’t really have your tribe yet, you can come to us and apply as an individual, and we’ll give you a tribe.”
Jennifer Fawcett is no stranger to the world of theater. She’s a graduate of the University of Iowa’s MFA Playwrights Workshop, and her work has received awards over the years and has been commissioned and produced all over the country—from Iowa City and Nashville, to Chicago and New York. The Source Festival may not help her career in the same way it did Payne’s, but it’s essential to her in other ways.
Each year, the Source Festival selects three new full-length plays—sometimes written by established playwrights like Fawcett—to anchor its lineup. For Fawcett, it’s a rare and valuable opportunity to bring a play that’s in an advanced stage of development—but not quite done—to a live audience to see what works and what doesn’t. This year, her latest work, Buried Cities, is one of the three full-length plays premiering at the festival.
Debuting a new show is a scary experience for playwrights, but it’s also a risky move for Source. However, that challenge has come to define the festival over the years.
“The reality is that new work is risky and it’s expensive, and it’s difficult to take those risks when most theaters are in a precarious place anyway,” Fawcett says. “Source is all about the risk.”
As good as the experience is for artists like Fawcett, it’s even more valuable for playwrights whose short scripts are selected as one of the 10-minute plays.
“One of the hardest things to do as a playwright is to get your work put up somewhere,” says Patrick Flynn, whose short play The Ferberizing of Coral is being produced in this year’s festival, “which is something I just didn’t understand for a while.”
Nathan Alan Davis, whose play Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea was produced at the Source Festival in 2014 and later at other theaters across the country, says that the opportunity is everything.
“I got to kind of see the play fully produced with an audience and have the time and space to work on it,” he says. “It became, in a way, like the on-ramp for the world premiere.”