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Inviting an audience to give feedback on a work-in-progress is already a little tough for writers. Letting them hear only 20 minutes of an unfinished work can be especially daunting. But Saturday, playwrights Basil KreimendahlMariana Carreño King, and John Greiner-Ferris (shown),will do just that at The Inkwell‘s First Contact showcase “Heart’s Desire.”

Inkwell is devoted to the development, rather than the production, of new plays. Founded in 2007 and led by Jessica Burgess, Anne M. McCaw, Lee Liebeskind, and Lindsay Haynes Lowder, the company developed Jason Grey Platt’s Crown of Shadows, and helped shepherd the play to Round House Theatre in 2012. (Disclosure: I worked with Burgess and Liebeskind as an actress in the 2010 Source Festival.)

Company leadership and a team of volunteer readers pore over hundreds of submissions each year. Roughly six of those plays are selected for a 12-18-month process of readings, conversations with dramaturgs, and rewriting that results in a bare-bones production of the complete play. The First Contact showcases establish the rapport between the Inkwell dramaturgs and the playwrights, and the publicly staged readings often represent the first time the play is heard by an audience.

Playwright Randy Baker, Co-Artistic Director of Rorschach Theatre, presented 20 minutes of his new play Forgotten Kingdoms in Inkwell’s May showcase, “Marooned at the Edge of the World.” When Baker and fellow playwrights Joe Waechter and Jennifer Fawcett were selected, they were asked to submit a draft of their work, then answer questions about their writing process and a favorite collaboration. Baker understands why Inkwell asks for a lot from their applicants. “It’s so easy to submit now,” he says, “it’s all electronic—-click and send.” But the process helps writers understand Inkwell, too. “You get a sense of who Inkwell is by the questions they ask,” Baker says.

For Waechter, author of Lake Untersee, the “Marooned” workshop experience was productive but rigorous. He arrived in D.C. with a new ending that required testing. “In rehearsal, it was clear the new ending was working,” he says, but as a result, “some other smaller dramaturgical threads needed to be resolved. We finished rehearsal Saturday night and the showcase reading was happening on Sunday afternoon. Motivated and inspired, I wrote through the night, revising emotional stakes for the characters.”

This week, the three writers on the bill for “Heart’s Desire” are deep in a similar process. Kriemendahl, who will contribute an excerpt from The Cost of a Goat on Saturday, chose to work on the beginning of her story. “The action starts immediately,” she says, “but I want to make sure the characters are clear from the start.” The play is inspired, in part, by Matt Smart’s book Not Quite White, and the true story of Carrie Buck, a woman sterilized when some states were practicing eugenics.

Greiner-Ferris calls his play Turtles “an American comedy road show” that “opens with a single mom who’s living on the side of the road with her two children in Arizona.”  He chose his excerpt “because Anne [McCaw] and I both felt that it would just be very interesting to—-the word that Anne used is ‘mine’——those scenes right now.”

King’sOfelia’s Lovers was inspired by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, his love interest Ofelia Queiroz, and the “heteronyms” he created. “These heteronyms,” says King, “were not just pen names, but actual writers with different personalities and professions who wrote in different literary genres… I wanted to explore Ofelia’s relationship not only with Fernando, but also with his creations.” King says she chose to workshop the last 20 pages of her current draft because “rewrite after rewrite, I still can’t find a theatrical way to resolve why the heteronyms stay with Ofelia after Fernando’s dead.”

Feedback can help writers overcome snags like that, but playwrights acknowledge that the workshop process requires them to surrender a little vanity. “It’s really nerve-wracking,” says Baker, “because you’re essentially choosing 20 minutes that are not the 20 minutes that you want to present to the public.” Fawcett, who wrote Atlas of Mud, agrees. “There’s part of me that wanted to present my strongest [excerpt], because I want people to think I’m a good writer and all of that.” But ultimately, she says, “the question is what’s best for the play.”

“Heart’s Desire, a First Contact Showcase” takes place 8 p.m. Saturday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Classroom, 641 D St. NW. Free. Reserve at reservations@inkwelltheatre.org.

Photos courtesy of The Inkwell.