Most often, art is created in private. Painters retreat to their studios, writers hustle off to cabins in the woods and composers seek quiet, reflective places where they can translate the music they hear in their head.

This week, playwrights pull back the veil on the private part of their process and invite audiences to see artists working in public when Portland Stage hosts the annual Little Festival of the Unexpected in its Studio Theater. With a suggested donation of $10, it’s a low-barrier, weeklong festival of new plays that are in the process of creation and revision. Three playwrights will be in residence, taking notes, watching for reaction and rewriting on the fly.

The plays are presented as staged readings and performed by members of the in-house Affiliate Artists and other professional actors, who rehearse the scripts with directors. The playwrights work on their scripts between readings and rehearsals based on feedback from the audience, actors, directors, dramaturgs and others. Each play gets two public performances, beginning Tuesday and continuing through Saturday, when all three plays are staged during the afternoon and evening.

This year, two of the three featured playwrights are from the Portland theater community: Callie Kimball, a former MacDowell Fellow whose plays are being produced by theaters across the country, and Monica Wood, who is best known and beloved as a novelist and memoirist and lately has taken to writing plays. Wood’s Little Festival play, “The Half-Light,” will be on the mainstage at Portland Stage next season, and Kimball’s “Things That Are Round” will get its premiere in November at Rep Stage in Maryland.

Also on the mainstage schedule next season is “Refuge/Malja” by Portland playwright Bess Welden. Her play was part of last year’s Little Festival.

Portland playwright Bess Welden Staff photo/ Gregory Rec

This festival has been around for nearly 30 years and is a destination for playwrights from around the country, said Anita Stewart, the theater’s executive and artistic director. It’s also the heart of the theater’s commitment to new work. She called the festival “an unparalleled way” for Maine audiences to see new plays taking shape, almost like being in a studio when the painter puts brush to canvas.

In terms of writing for theater, Wood is the newbie of the trio. “The Half-Light” is her second play. Her first, “Papermaker,” got its premiere at Portland Stage and became the theater’s best-selling play. Her latest novel is “The One-in-a-Million Boy,” and her memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys,” is a regional best-seller and winner of a Maine Literary Award.

Kimball, who moved to Portland from New York about five years ago, has written plays that have been produced in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Her plays include “Sofonisba,” “Rush” and “Alligator Road,” and she’s currently writing a commission inspired by the letters of her grandparents during World War II.

Welden is a writer and performer who has lived in Maine since 2001. While “Refuge/Malja” represents her mainstage debut at Portland Stage, she’s worked with the theater extensively. Her one-act play “Madelines” premiered in the theater’s Studio Series, and her solo comedies “Big Mouth Thunder Thighs” and “The Passion of the Hausfrau” were workshopped through Little Festival and staged in the Studio Theater.

Wood, Kimball and Welden sat down for lunch at the Union Restaurant at the Press Hotel to talk about the festival, and how and why they write. They’re very different writers, bound by a love of theater and a desire to tell dramatic stories, and their conversation opens wide a window into how art is made and how artists support one another.

Q: Monica, how did you get into writing for theater?

MW: I got into writing for theater because the Longfellow Shorts (staged reading series) did several events around my work, and I saw my work on stage. Bess was in one of them, she played my sister Betty in “When We Were the Kennedys.” It was an amazing night of theater, and at the end (actress) Moira (Driscoll) interviewed me on stage. And there was this moment – I think this was the moment – when Moira asked me, “What is the ‘Tantum Ergo?’ ” which is a Latin hymn. If you were Catholic, you would know what it is. … I looked out at the audience. It was a packed house, and I looked out and said, “I think we have a quorum of lapsed Catholics here.” And I just started singing it. Everyone who knew it sang the “Tantum Ergo,” and it was the most spontaneous, unrehearsed moment. Those moments can’t happen anywhere else. You can’t plan for them. It was a theatrical moment. And I thought, “I’m going to write a play.”

Portland playwright Callie Kimball Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Q: That made you feel good?

MW: It made me feel a part of something so much bigger. Novel writing is so depressing and lonely most of the time. Writing plays is collaborative and joyful most of the time.

Q: Did you start writing plays right after that, and what is the sequence of your plays?

MW: I’ve only written two, and the first one was “Papermaker.” And I started writing that right after “When We Were the Kennedys” came out. I was going to go back to the novel, but because I had opened myself up to memoir, which is a genre I had never written in before, it gave me kind of a little bit of courage to try another genre that I hadn’t tried. I said, “I have always wanted to write a play, I’m going to do it right now.” That was the sequence.

Q: What is the new play about?

MW: The second play is called “The Half-Light,” and it’s about a woman, a college secretary, who has a chance encounter that gets her to believe she might be able to be trained to see spirits. As she goes in pursuit of an answer to that question, her story collides with that of a colleague who is recovering from loss and is in complete bereavement.

Portland playwright Monica Wood Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Q: Why is the Little Festival important to your process, Callie?

CK: It’s invaluable. The fact is, I have done 37 drafts of “Things That Are Round” in five years. Most of that was about the ending. The ending was just being a beast, and I couldn’t get my arms around it. I just took all these crazy swipes at different endings. It has a world premiere in November down in Maryland at Rep Stage. The gift of Little Fest, and why this so helpful to me right now, is that I can take 10 hours of rehearsal and two different audiences and really kick the tires on it. You need to hear actors and the audience bringing it to life. The gift will be that I can do that work, then put it aside and enjoy my summer rather than agonize over it. I am looking at the Portland workshop at the Little Fest as the time to really set the play, and then walk away.

Q: Why did you write it?

CK: The original impulse was given to me by my teacher. We had lunch at a diner and were standing at a street corner afterward, and she gave me a prompt to write a play that had an opera singer, a deaf person and a ventriloquist. At the time, I had actually just been correctly diagnosed with a hearing problem that had been misdiagnosed for many years, since I was 18. What that did to my own identity and sense of self was pretty profound, so I took the prompt as a launching off point into how people understand each other. This one was revolving around the idea of a woman who is sort of invisible. She decides that, to make herself more visible, she has an imaginary child and then she hires a babysitter for that child. And the babysitter is like, “Wait, what? You want to pay me how much money to watch – OK, sure, because who would say no that?” It’s a play full of surprises, of pulling what we assume to be an understanding of the situation or another person and upending it, but not in a hostile way or an aggressive way with the audience. It’s very playful, but in the end I think it does get into the heart of how we think we matter and how we count, and are we seen and is our work seen, and what do we believe and what is shared belief? It’s about communication and people coming from different worlds, but they end up creating a world that makes sense to them.

Q: Bess, you have a play on the mainstage next year that was part of the Little Festival last year. How did your Little Festival experience benefit your play?

BW: I have been lucky enough to be in three Little Fests with different projects, so I am well-versed with how unbelievably useful that time is. In every case, I was revising like crazy during the festival. The play I walked in the door with on Monday was not the play that got read on Thursday.

I’ve been in a bunch of Little Fests as an actor, five or six of them. I know how valuable it is from that perspective, too, and I love being a performer in the room helping a writer work. But I also have huge trust in actors, not just because I am one, but because I know how smart actors are and how much they can see in a play that when I am the writer I cannot see.

With “Refuge/Malja,” the Little Festival mattered a lot because the play has two Arabic-speaking characters. It was the first time I was able to hear them. Because there is that institutional support around the festival, we were able to cast the role of Ibrahim out of New York, so were able to have an actor to do the full language thing. That was enormous in terms of understanding how much the language was working, not working and how the translation was working, not working. I can’t imagine not having had the Little Fest experience to get the play to where it is now.

MW: It is a gorgeous play. I told Bess this will be the hit of the season. It will be a huge community event, this play.

Q: Why?

MW: It talks about the experience of people who either want to come here or can’t come here, or do come here or don’t come here from another place. Part of it is that it’s in Arabic. It’s very different. It’s fresh, it’s original. I was blown away by this play when I saw it at the Little Fest.

BW: I learned so much from being in that community for a week and going to other readings and having the chance to interface with other writers. I have enduring relationships with other playwrights just because we were in Little Festivals together. We have a friendship because we were little-festing together. For me, that’s big. My path to being a writer has been long and circuitous. It’s really pretty recently that I have been starting to write for other people. Most of my writing has been material I have generated for myself to perform.

Q: When you say writing for others, do you mean other performers?

BW: Yes, other performers. I never imagined myself in this play. I didn’t write it as something for me to perform. I wanted to write it for other people. That’s really pretty new. I have a few scripts now, but it’s been in the last five years.

Q: Do you feel more free as writer with that mindset?

BW: Probably. I think it’s a maturing in my writing, to go from wanting to write about things that have a deep personal connection to me – for example, “Big Mouth Thunder Thighs” was really about me and my journey to self-acceptance about food and body and that kind of stuff, and that’s more like memoir kind of writing – and then moving to something like “Legbala Is a River” where I was the primary performer, but that wasn’t my story. That wasn’t a lived experience that I had. It was from my imagination.

MW: You moved from memoir to fiction.

BW: I guess, pretty much. That’s a great way of talking about it.

Q: Why did you write this play?

BW: In fall of 2015, my sister-in-law, Jodi Hilton, who is an international photojournalist, was on Lesbos in Greece covering that particular moment in this huge migration that was happening, primarily from Syria but from other parts of the Middle East. During those several months in the fall, I became obsessed following that story and watching that story unfold from my comfy place here in Portland.

She was doing a lot of photography of kids and talking a lot about how she was encountering unaccompanied kids. I started reading a bunch of articles and doing a bunch of research about this phenomenon of a very large number of kids making this perilous journey by themselves or getting lost along the way.

Her images sparked this relationship in my mind, what if you are a photojournalist and you are covering these stories, how does your heart not break every single time? How do you put up the wall and do your work and want to bring empathy to these stories but not get personally involved? What would happen if some switch flipped and you can’t help yourself and you get immediately attached to this kid and you begin breaking all the rules, because you’re a human being and he’s a human being?

CK: It’s such a beautiful play. For me, the heart part that gets me the most is when the child is speaking in Arabic. Because it’s so moving, and you know that everything he is saying is so important. And I don’t speak Arabic, and I am faced with that difference and that sense of distance. It’s both intimate and there is distance in there at the same time that I can’t bridge.

MW: It’s a fantastic moment in the play. Suddenly, we’re the ones who can’t get in.

Q: You all know each other’s work. You see each other’s shows. What is it like to be a playwright in Portland knowing you are part of a community that is much bigger than just you?

CK: It’s such a gift, because playwriting is the weirdest job in the world. It’s collaborative, but it’s also very solitary in many ways. My people are my fellow playwrights. That’s who I go to. I have a relationship with Bess and a relationship with Monica, where we can talk very frankly and very candidly about our process and about the business side of it. We turn to each other in a certain way we can’t turn to other people.

I moved here five years ago from New York, and I didn’t know what to expect. Would I be busing back to New York every couple of months to workshop a play? – and I still do that sometimes, but I don’t need to. I have a community here. I have a place for my plays, not just a theater but fellow writers I respect who will give me constructive feedback. It’s a great sense of belonging.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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