Reading the play's the thing volunteers do

    The Ashland New Plays Festival allows non-professionals (like me) to play a meaningful role (besides audience) in theater. The organization is run overwhelmingly by volunteers — only the artistic director and marketing director are paid. The flagship event of ANPF is the presentation of readings of four new plays in October of each year. The volunteer play readers are essential to the process of choosing those plays from among hundreds submitted each year. (For those of you who heard that more than 550 plays were submitted and read this year: do not panic. The new rules limit the eligible plays to the first 400 submitted!)

    There is no specific set of criteria to be a reader, though one should be comfortable with reading a play script and judging its quality. One also needs to accept a significant time commitment: over the course of the reading season, approximately January through May, one is expected to read 50-60 scripts. A plus: The reading and grading are done individually and thus largely at one’s own convenience within the general schedule. A minus: The reading is done individually. But there are also discussion meetings, among one’s assigned discussion group and — at the end — for every reader who chooses to come. These are a wonderful way to dig deeper into what makes a good play, as members of the group tell what led them to give a play a high or low grade.

    It was fascinating to me to see how different people made their assessments: Is the key the narrative arc for the main character? The quality of the language? The extent to which the script seems to suggest a play (rather than a TV show or an extended piece of opinion journalism). And, before the reading season starts, ANPF has an introduction/training session on how to read a play. (On a personal note, I found the training very helpful — including the warning that most of the plays aren’t exactly OSF-ready, though some were — despite the warning — very good indeed!!)

    What is the process? Once enough plays are in hand, they are distributed to the play readers. Readers are part of discussion groups, of six or more. Each group will get about 50 plays to read in the first round. If the process works as it should, each play will be read and graded by three readers; if their votes are sufficiently positive, the other members of that discussion group will read them as well. Plays that score well enough, once read and voted on by the whole group, move on to the second round. In that round, every reader reads all the plays that “advanced,” and votes again. And, after a meeting of the whole group where people can advocate for those plays they like (and against those they didn’t), and a final round of voting, the top 12-14 plays are sent to the artistic director.

    From that set, the artistic director will choose the four plays to be presented at the Ashland New Plays Festival. He will consider his own assessment of quality. But he also needs to think about the mix of genres and subject matter — even if there were four terrific plays rooted in American history, it is unlikely that even two would make the final cut. And each play needs a director and actors who have the time and interest to prepare and present the play within the narrow time frame for the festival. As a reader, one of the delights is seeing how a play that you really liked on the page works at a reading by professional actors (or — if a play you disliked makes the cut — either the surprise of how well it works, or the schadenfreude of how it doesn’t!!)

    In addition to the festival, ANPF sponsors a number of other events. There is a set of four monthly “Theatre Talks” starting shortly, where an ANPF leader interviews one of the OSF actors. And this is the second year of a summer “Actor’s Choice,” where ANPF sponsors a staged reading of a play. This year that will be "The Little Dog Laughed" on June 29.

    If you want to know more about what ANPF does, you can check out their website at If you are interested in volunteering, there is a link there to contact ANPF, or email You will also be able to get an application to become a reader when you come to the festival in October.

    Mary I. Coombs’ column on local nonprofit organizations appears every three weeks. Email questions and suggestions to

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