By Patrick Flynn
This coming Labor Day Weekend, DC theater folk will be flocking to the beach, cooking out, or perhaps even taking their Paladin once more into the Tomb of Annihilation. One thing they will not be doing is arriving en masse at the Kennedy Center for the annual Page-to-Stage Festival.
Since 2001, the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival had been an unofficial kickoff to the DC theater season as theater companies of all levels from across the DMV would gather in every nook and cranny of KC’s hallowed halls to present readings of the work they were developing. Free of charge, patrons could wander to such spaces as the Millennium Stage, the African Room, and (starting in 2019) the Reach and sample the wares theater companies had to offer. But since this vital event went dark in 2020 (due to COVID), the Kennedy Center has not resurrected it and seems to have no plans to do so.
And that is a tragedy.
I was fortunate to debut several new scripts at Page-to-Stage between 2017 and 2019 (my record is three in one festival), and I am proud to say that most of them went on to full productions. Both of my plays commissioned by Adventure Theatre (Tinker Bell and The Velveteen Rabbit) got their developmental start at the Page-to-Stage up on the luscious Millennium Stage, where they were performed for a big group of kids and their caregivers.
It is impossible to overstate how valuable the opportunity was to present a script that was still growing to its target audience in such a vaunted venue for no money down. And both productions were significantly strengthened as a result. Jokes were found, lulls were cut, and concepts were made fact in those halls. And if I seem overly romantic about it, have you ever tried to get your target audience to attend a free reading of your new play?
To be fair, the Kennedy Center is certainly doing genuine outreach to our community. Their Local Theatre Residency is an amazing opportunity for theater artists who, to quote the Kennedy Center itself, “leverage their artistry to amplify stories that are often overlooked.” It is a wonderful start. But there is more to be done and on a grander scale.
The Kennedy Center is a cathedral to our national arts religion. Throughout the pandemic and after, it has demonstrated dedication to its mission to be a “beacon for the performing arts, engaging artists and audiences around the world to share, inspire, and celebrate the cultural heritage by which a great society is defined and remembered.”
But DC artists have had to handle an all-too-familiar side-effect of this focus on the national: the sacrifice of the local. The District of Columbia has always been a city caught in the middle, due to its inability to govern itself, its continued malignment by those seeking higher office, and its neglect by those given the responsibility of approving its budget who seemingly (like so many tourists) never venture outside the confines of the National Mall.
Things are tough all over. And our industry is in serious crisis. But this makes community-building events like Page-to-Stage at the Kennedy Center more necessary now than ever before. Sure, I could galvanize some actors, strong-arm some artistic directors, book a hall, and put on my own festival, but it is not just the what of Page-to-Stage, it is the where. The Kennedy Center is unlike any other performing arts center in the world, and it’s right here in our very own city. Where should we bring our new work if not to our cathedral?
In a time when so many of our great theater minds wax rhapsodic about whether or not the American theater may or may not be in a death spiral, I would like to see this beacon for the performing arts step up and take an active role in aiding the vibrant and necessary theater community of its host city by flinging wide its nooks and crannies and letting us once more present our wares for the general public on a grand, gorgeous, and national stage.
Patrick Flynn is a Helen Hayes Award–nominated playwright and award-winning filmmaker based in Washington, DC. Produced stage works include The Ferberizing of Coral (winner, Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival), Tinker Bell (licensed by Dramatic Publishing), The Velveteen Rabbit (licensed by Theatrical Rights Worldwide), Giant Box of Pr0n (licensed by Next Stage Press), Sheila and Moby (Helen Hayes Recommended), Where in North Dakota Is Carmen Sandiego? (Awesome Con 2018). His podcast The Original Cast was named one of the “7 Standout Theatre Podcasts” by Playbill. He is a professor at American University and Catholic University and a member of the Dramatists Guild. www.unknownpenguin.com
Page-to-Stage Festival is likely gone as Kennedy Center evolves support for local artists (news story by Nicole Hertvik, August 28, 2023)