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"Launchpad” Play Reading Series Producer Keith Szarabajka Interview - Spotlighting Development at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA

By Ester Benjamin Shifren

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When you see a new play on Broadway, or even at one of the larger houses here in Los Angeles, often you’ll find that the play is not so new. It sometimes takes years of development before producers are willing to invest the kind of money it takes to fully realize such a production.

Los Angeles intimate theatre stays at the forefront of developing new works because they are able to create and launch new plays from their small companies, with the help of the professionals within their ranks, without monetary investment. This usually starts with a series of readings. Some of these new plays go on to have productions in regional houses around the country, as well as in New York, London and elsewhere.

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA is one of these intimate companies that has become known and awarded for their new plays, producing in a venue which seats about 50 people in the audience. Through their Playwrights Unit, the company vets and develops plays for their main stage season. “This annual ‘Launchpad’ series takes a play to the next step beyond a reading: a staged reading. Although the actors are still on book, they are blocked (given basic movements on stage), and rudimentary lights and sound are employed. This provides the playwright and audience with a better idea of how the play looks on its feet,” says one of this year’s contributors, playwright Stephen Dierkes.

Keith Szarabajka, who is Co-Artistic Director at EST/LA along with Liz Ross and Roderick Menzies, talks about the importance of producing “Launchpad,” which draws from a wealth of talented writers including NYFA, NEA, Guggenheim, Obie, Emmy and Writers Guild Award winners.



Ester:Why is this yearly event so important to EST/LA?

Keith: It helps us learn just what we have out there in terms of new plays that might be “producible.” It keeps the artistic juices churning. We don’t just read these plays in “Launchpad,” we launch them on their feet with lights, sound and exploration of our space. It’s akin to what one might see at the O’Neill Theater Center.

Ester: How and when did the idea come about for “Launchpad?”

Keith: We came up with the idea during our Playwrights Unit meeting, prior to the change in artistic directorship in 2014, as a way to both showcase the Playwrights Unit’s writers' work and integrate the Playwrights Unit more into our company. Before this, it had been something of an outlier in the company although Tom Baum, our moderator for the Unit at the time, had been working hard to integrate it into EST/LA for a few years. It was originally started with Jose Rivera back in the late 1990’s as a place where EST/LA writers could be heard in a safe and protected arena, but get honest feedback.

Ester: What do you look for in a play in order for it to be included in Launchpad?

Keith: It must speak to me … and to several other readers as well …as something that cries out for a stage. We had 16 different readers for the material this year. All have widely varying tastes. Each piece is read by at least five readers. We look for pieces that have that “it” quality, pieces that make you want to know what it is that they have to tell you. We look for pieces that might work on our intimate stage and within our limited technical capacity, but even if we produce it, that doesn’t mean we won’t put a great piece into “Launchpad.” It may be beyond our capability at the time but we’ll hope for the best.



Ester: What is the process for submitting work, or for working with your company?

Keith: We ask for submissions from our Playwrights Unit, our New West Playwrights unit and the EST/LA company members at large. If you’re not a company member, our “Sunday Best” unit, run by Ray Xifo, is an excellent and accessible portal for both new writers and actors. It meets once a month at the theater from 9am-1pm on the third Sunday of each month. Writers can also get a play into our “Winterfest” reading festival by getting an EST/LA member in good standing to initiate it (deadline this year is 12/15/2016). Another way to submit is through our Playwrights Unit moderator, Stephen Dierkes, and hope it strikes a chord with him.



Ester: Can you talk about some success stories that have emerged from “Launchpad” in the past?

Keith: “Watching O.J.” by David McMillan came out of the first “Launchpad” in 2014, and “Mutual Philanthropy” by Karen Rizzo is another success, from our development programs, which had an extended run this past season. Two pieces in our One Act Festival last summer did very well also, my “Nessun Dorma” black comedy and Jim Macdonald’s piece about childhood, “The Big Hill.” Hopefully, even more pieces from this year’s “Launchpad”will make it to our own or other stages.



Ester: What is the most exciting part about this year’s “Launchpad?”

Keith: We showcase seven new full-length plays and five new one acts over eight nights of staged readings. Seeing these plays stand on their feet and feeling how they fill out our space is what excites me the most. That and the fact that we will employ 78 theater artists in doing it, many of them company members... but some not. We like to bring in new minds. It’s a part of what keeps us fresh and alive. What I love most about EST/LA is the feeling of belonging to an extended family. Through programs like “Launchpad,” our “Winterfest” reading series coming up January 20 - February 12, 2017, and our “One Act Festival,” )which we intend to do again in May and June next year), we can share that family feeling and bring more theater artists and audience members within its embrace.

Featured playwrights in “Launchpad” include Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Marek Glinski, Stephen Burleigh, Tom Baum, Alyson Mead, Chris DiGiovanni, Stephen Dierkes, Tony Pasqualini, Deborah Pearl, Elin Hampton, Jennifer Maisel, and Ian Patrick Williams.

LAUNCHPAD runs at 8pm Thursdays – Sundays (except Sunday, November 20th is a 4pm), November 10 - 20, 2016. $15 suggested donation. Donate online or buy at the door. Festival passes available: $75 for both weekends and $40 for one weekend. Ensemble Studio Theatre/LAis located in the Atwater Village Theatre Complex, 3269 Casitas Ave. LA, CA 90039. Suggested donations: $15. More information: estlosangeles and 818-839-1197.


Published on Nov 16, 2016

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