Scripts in hand, 36 North playwrights let audience in on the process

The collective of local playwrights under the 36 North banner kicks off a series of staged readings of new plays Monday — a chance to interact with a live audience and get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

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Among the many artists pursuing their passions in Santa Cruz County is a dedicated group of local playwrights who come together every week to help make each other better writers. The group is known as 36 North Playwrights’ Collective (named for Santa Cruz’s latitude above the equator). And this summer, 36 North will be presenting with Actors’ Theatre a monthly play reading of a new play by one of its members.

These will not be full productions — they will feature actors but they’ll be reading from a script. Staged readings are a common practice in the art of playwriting, allowing playwrights to interact with a live audience and get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

The first of this summer’s plays will be presented Monday evening, May 22, with a free admission (though donations will be accepted). The playwright in the 2023 debut of the series is Wilma Marcus Chandler, a central figure in the Santa Cruz County theater community going back decades. In 2022, Chandler stepped away from her role leading Actors’ Theatre and the 8 Tens @ 8 play festival, and she has spent the past year returning to her first passion — writing.

Her play “The Gertrude Variations” is, she said, inspired by a musical masterpiece, implied in the play’s name. “It was my nod to [J.S.] Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations,’ which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. And, in fact, I remember way back in the ’50s — that’s how old I am — going to Carnegie Hall and hearing Glenn Gould play live the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and being so moved by that, as a choreographer and as a dancer back then, that it stayed with me forever.”

The play is about a woman named Gertrude Walker who decides to throw a party and invite only other women also named Gertrude Walker. “And five of them show up,” said Chandler. “Each one of them is radically different from her and yet they’re not. Each one is a kind of an aspect of her own personality.”

The play will feature a handful of talented local actors including Helene Simkin Jara, Maggie Paul, Solange Marcotte, Susan Forrest, Kathy Chetkovich, Joyce Michaelson and Deborah Bryant. The performance will be followed by a Q&A session with the playwright, so audiences can give feedback that might end up influencing changes in the play.

It’s a great chance to see creativity as it happens. And it’s free. Monday at Actors’ Theatre. Things get started at 7 p.m.

The next 36 North staged reading will take place June 26. It will be Steve Capasso’s “Kandy Land.”

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