The Devil's in the Details 

Playwrights Conference takes the time to make it right

The dramatic peaks of the Seven Devils Mountain range provide a fitting namesake of the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall, Idaho. Rigorous work in the theater coupled with the natural beauty of the surroundings create an ideal environment for expanding talents on every level, as professional actors, writers and directors from all over the country convene in the small mountain community to work alongside novices, high school students and local residents. Each year, for two intensive weeks, full-length plays are revised, rewritten and rehearsed, then performed for audiences that subsequently critique them. The actors are riveting, the directors are skilled, and the performances are always impressive, but at this conference, these components are merely complimentary to what matters most: the growth and development of the play itself.

The Seven Devils Playwrights Conference bills itself as being "dedicated to the development of new American plays from the playwright's perspective." From June 7-20, 2009, playwrights, actors and directors from as far away as New York and as close as McCall-Donnelly High School come together to workshop a dozen plays that will hit the stage for their first time at the Alpine Playhouse in downtown McCall. In this setting, the conference draws on a mutually beneficial relationship between urban artists and rural community. It also boasts the only conference in the country that combines high school playwrights with professionals from the theater.

Original plays developed at this conference may have a humble beginning in this rustic town, but they often rise to unforeseen heights as a result of the work done in this somewhat surprising locale. Since its inception in 2001, the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference has cultivated 73 new plays, including In the Sawtooths by Dano Madden, which won the Kennedy Center National Student Playwriting Award; Fuente by Cusi Cram, winner of the Herrick New Play Award; and Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan. The conference has also hosted accomplished playwrights like Adam Rapp, Lee Blessing and Eugene Lee, who have led workshops, served as mentors and presented their own work.

The Seven Devils Playwrights Conference was the result of a series of coincidences that joined the minds and talents of artistic directors Jeni Mahoney and Sheila McDevitt with playwriting teacher Judy Anderson. McDevitt, a long-time actress and director, had been producing plays in McCall as part of id Theater since 1997. Id Theater began as an actor-driven company dedicated to producing new plays in McCall and taking them to New York, thus establishing the connection between the two rural and urban artistic communities. By 2000, she was struggling to find exciting new plays to explore. Mahoney, a professor of playwriting at Playwrights' Horizons Theater School at NYU, was looking for something similar—a conference that would bring to light emerging playwrights and good, fresh plays. Mahoney only needed a vacation in McCall to realize her ambition. "I was at our house in McCall and I had this idea while I was sitting on my porch that this would not only be a good place but a better place [than New York]," says Mahoney.

"In the beginning, we weren't really sure how it was going to go," says Mahoney. "But once I put it out in the universe, the momentum (of the conference) already had an identity of its own." Shortly after joining forces, Mahoney and McDevitt struck a deal with Anderson, a friend of McDevitt's, that allowed id Theater to rent the Alpine Playhouse for the conference at no cost, in exchange for putting on free shows for the community and the inclusion of high school playwrights.

The participation of high school playwrights was integral in laying the foundation for what the conference has come to represent—an impressive array of talents linked inextricably to community contribution and support. Students whose work is accepted into the conference are mentored by professional playwrights. "Every kid has enjoyed the experience," says Anderson. "Who wouldn't? You get your own dramaturge and director asking you 'Is this what you want?' throughout the whole process. You have the total attention of two professionals and your play comes to life with live actors. The Seven Devils people are very adept at treating the plays seriously, like works of some import, and kids respond to that like a flower to the sun."

Kali Borkoski, whose play Pixels was developed by the conference at the end of her senior year of high school, found that the process challenged her to personally focus on what she created. "In the beginning, my play was like this foreign beast," she says, "I saw all the body parts come together as it went on. My mentor told me, 'You have to take responsibility for this.' I had to take it seriously, and that was good for me. They made me be critical with myself and my play. The best part was the thrill and amazement I felt seeing the words I'd written come to life."

In the high school playwrights' productions, professional actors work alongside local actors of all ages. Despite the range of experience, Borkoski was amazed at the collaborative spirit that pervaded the conference. "It's incredible to have everyone giving their whole selves for this project," she says.

Mahoney agrees that this is what makes the conference unique. "We have all these people at all different levels. It's really nice that way," she says. "It has been good for everyone to work with the high school students. We say in the company that it is hard to mentor someone generously and then be selfish at your own rehearsal, and that has been true in our experience."

For her part, Mahoney believes wholeheartedly in making the script's development the primary concern. "We constantly have this mantra: 'What's good for the play?' And everyone buys into that notion," she says. Returning New York-based actor Peter O'Connor agrees. "It's very clear it's set up to serve the playwright," he says. "We give what we have to what is being written and you ask the playwright, 'What do you need from us to make this happen?' There is a purity in the experience of watching the play develop. It is uniquely egoless."

Mary Portser, a returning playwright and actress, enjoys the chance to test the flexibility of a new play. "It's nice to be in the theater-intensive environment," she says. "As an actor, you have to make strong choices really fast. Nothing is a smooth-sailing thing. And as a playwright, you try to see if choices work and take full advantage of the opportunity to change things."

In an effort to focus squarely on a given script's development, other components of the play are purposefully understated. Actors wear minimal costumes and makeup, the set is painted gray, and rewrites are often done up to the last minute, which means the actors carry their script even during performances.

Despite its emerging notoriety—it started with just 40 submitted plays—the conference depends wholly on maintaining a small-town feel, not only for its pastoral appeal but also for its own survival. "It was important that we created a conference that was partnered with the community," says Mahoney. "All that we get from the people of McCall has made this conference possible." Company members live with locals during the two weeks that they are at the conference, and they depend on donations and grants for travel expenses. "If we added up all the costs of members staying in peoples' homes and the cost of the Alpine Theater, there is no way we could have done it alone," says Mahoney.

For Mahoney, having the local audience attending the performances contributes largely to this partnership. "Without the audience, it doesn't matter what we do," she says. Regular attendees to the performances have learned to approach the plays with a certain artistic sophistication. "They have become aficionados," notes O'Connor. "Now they know how to critique a play." Yet McCall locals have much to teach the metropolitan visitors, too, as Anderson points out. "I think it is important for people to come and hang out in a small town and see there are a lot of ideas out here," she says. "Cross-fertilization of urban and rural is essential: I only wish there was more."

The conference offers theatrical reinvigoration for many of its participants. The beauty of the natural setting, the intimate company and the selfless devotion to the written word brings the work into focus. Portser, who resides in Los Angeles for the rest of the year, sums up the attitude of many returning participants: "It feels like you're at summer camp for actors in a good, nurturing, artistic community," she says.

Such a symbiotic relationship between live theater and community, urban and rural settings, seasoned veterans and novices, is rarer than one would think.

Live theater is all about community, but the dedication of a small town to fostering the development of new plays and the commitment of the conference attendees to the power of the word truly sets the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in the highest peaks of the dramatic experience.

An excerpt from The Tragedy of the Brothers Lafferty, a play written by Ben Verschoor, who attended Seven Devils Playwrights Conference as a high school student and returned as an adult. Verschoor was named one of "50 to Watch" by The Dramatist magazine.

The Tragedy of the Brothers Lafferty

Act I

Scene 1. [Watson Sr.'s clinic.]

(Enter Dan and Marcus)

Dan

The volley of our patrons now subsides.

Let us, while they are yet diminishéd,

Recover strength, in wit and physic both,

That we may suffer them another round.

Marcus

So aggravate art thou in thy conceits!

'Tis only till our father is recovered

We are to take his stead. Wherefore disdainest

Thou who provideth us our income?

Dan

Disdain? Nay, brother, this is but derision. Disdain and scorn and malice I reserve

For the state that profligates our income.

Marcus

Prithee, do spare me thy bombastic rants.

'Tis not as terrible as thou wouldst bark.

What of the feds, what issues problem they?

Their purposes do lay on naught but us

And our wellbeing. Why art thou laughing?

Dan

'Tis not at thee, assurances; I laugh

At such a paradox. They'd have us mired

Till Christ's return in bog of welfare, but

I know they would not have us faring well.

Thou must recall the confrontation 'twixt

The government and me when I'd been training For this, our current chiropractice.

Marcus

Alas, I do. It was a troubled time.

Dan

Indeed! For they'd have had us all de-fanged And gumming desperately upon their dug

Than living, feeding, dying on ambition.

I would that I were teething so to maul

That teat, than bear such an indignity.

Marcus

One need not hang on their security;

Thou hadst thy family to support thee.

In spite of all of Ronald's numerous

Responsibilities, he would have given

Thee aught it was thou neededst.

Dan

I am sure

He would have, as he is generous

And loyal most, to the extent of thinness,

But I did not wish to trouble him.

Marcus

The church had such a means to help thee through

Those times.

Dan

I've such a means to help the church,

For they are truly needing in these times

Moe guidance than I do.

Marcus

What? Heresy!

Dan

Committing treason 'gainst the mutineers

Is in the end an act of loyalty.

Never was there betrayal greater than

The church's long neglect of the divine

Command that one should try to supplement

Deficient marriage with moe wives.

Marcus

Now mine

Humor doth overthrow mine etiquette.

Is this thy grounds for shagging out thy locks,

That thou mightst shag out some nubile minx?

The concept of thee with a mistress quakes

One's body with a laughing peal.

Dan

Why should

We have but one? If we're to procreate As much as can be done, wherefore confine Ourselves to but a single concubine,

Especially if ordered from above?

Marcus

Dost thou

Sincerely hope to resurrect the old And rusted doctrine of polygamy?

'Tis foolhardiness.

Dan

I do not hope— (A bell)

But soft, the customers are hither come.

They want our hands, but will instead get arms,

For hark: our armistice is at an end.

Marcus

But a moment, and out we'll be!

Dan

Though we resume, this conversation's far

From finishéd; we can elaborate

Some later point.

The truth will be restored,

The highest Heaven tier be our reward.

Exeunt

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