Writing can be hard work, especially when it comes to the exacting craft and elusive art of writing plays. Fortunately, Portland Center Stage makes the process more productive and fun with its annual JAW Festival. This July marks the festival’s 20th anniversary, and it continues to draw some of the country’s most intriguing and entertaining playwrights to Portland like Clarence Coo, recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award, and Ovation Award-winning playwright Meghan Brown. Best of all, the rest of us get to witness the fun.
JAW: A Playwrights’ Festival is Portland Center Stage’s annual summer camp for writers. The three-day event has a clear mission: Do what it takes to help writers improve their plays. Each year, the company painstakingly chooses plays (usually four) from among hundreds of submissions by both well established and emerging writers. (The 2009 JAW writers, for instance, included Will Eno, already a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Kimberly Rosenstock, who went on to acclaim as a writer for the Fox TV show “New Girl.”) Each writer brings a play in progress and works for two weeks with a director, a dramaturge and actors. Along the way, they revise and refine the words on the page to better tell the story on stage.
Since its start in 1999, JAW (originally called “Just Add Water”) has helped develop more than 80 plays. These have resulted in fully staged productions at more than 100 professional theaters across the country, including more than a dozen world premieres at Portland Center Stage. Among the many notable successes has been Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American,” about the Pulitzer-winning war photographer Paul Watson. The play had an acclaimed off-Broadway run and won the prestigious Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.
JAW is thoroughly invested in the needs of writers, and that pays off big for audiences. The public is invited in for free to experience “The Big Weekend.” Fanciful, site-specific performances by varied Portland theater artists and short plays by local high-school writers enliven the atmosphere. The main event is a series of staged readings of the featured plays. Don’t expect much in the way of costumes or sets; these bare-bones presentations offer the crackling energy of great actors digging into fresh ideas and emotions.
“Human beings are story junkies,” says Rose Riordan, festival director and Portland Center Stage’s associate artistic director. “It’s no different than telling stories around a campfire. It’s exciting as something an audience member discovers for the first time, or for those people who come every year and really know their JAW.”