By Katie Lovett
---- — After a decade of performances, Newburyport’s New Works Festival is making an impression on the theater community.
For the festival, area playwrights are asked to submit new plays that have not been staged previously. The submissions are then judged by a panel of theater professionals who choose a mix of works to be given to a director and actors to perform.
One full-length play, which opens the festival, is performed as a staged reading. Numerous one-act plays and short plays are memorized by the actors.
This year’s New Works Festival is set for Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, as well as Jan. 25 and Jan. 26 at the Firehouse Center for the Arts.
The program began 11 years ago as an opportunity to give local writers a chance to see their plays on stage. In the early years, the format was longer and included evenings devoted to senior playwrights and youth. But after a few years, organizers shortened it to two weekends and began promoting the festival to writers throughout New England — and momentum began to build.
That was particularly evident this year when organizers received close to 140 submissions from all over New England, breaking the previous record of entries of about 100.
“It went up 33 percent,” Firehouse artistic director Kimm Wilkinson said.
While several of the winners live in the Greater Newburyport area or in the Merrimack Valley, others hail from Boston, Brookline, Lexington, West Roxbury, South Yarmouth and Jamaica Plain.
Over the course of two weekends, the festival offers a mix of one-act plays, 10-minute shorts and a full-length play. During the past decade, the event has gotten the attention of local and regional playwrights — and theater fans, Wilkinson said.
“We’re getting more recognition,” she said. In an effort to continue to expand, organizers have worked hard to reach out to playwrighting organizations throughout New England, she said, while also relying on word of mouth.
Longtime judge Jack Welch agrees that the festival is becoming more popular. In addition to more outreach, the festival also produces quality productions, he said, which makes it appealing to playwrights looking to stage a work.
“The staff at the Firehouse have been so kind to playwrights,” he added, “Playwrights are treated like members of the artistic community which is producing their work. That makes a world of difference.”
Earning the top honors at the festival is the full-length winner “Purple Hearts,” written by Merrill Meadow of Lexington. The play will open the festival on Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m.
As a judge, Welch said he was impressed by the quality of the writing and its structure. The characters were interesting, and the plot line was well developed, he said.
“It had a full story,” said Welch, of Newburyport, who has an extensive background in theater. He was the former managing director and chief editor of Baker’s Plays in Boston and the associate manager of The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. Welch was also one of the founders of The Boston Theatre Association, American Premiere Stage and StageSource.
After each judge reads each submission, the group meets one weekend afternoon for about six hours to discuss the works and choose the winners, he said. Each judge comes well-prepared and with a view of each play.
“It’s intense,” Welch said of the session. “It’s great fun, but it’s intense.”
In crafting his play, Meadow, 54, director of academic and development planning at Harvard, drew on his experiences as a high school history teacher in Camden, N.J., in 1984 — which is the time and setting of “Purple Hearts.”
Meadow said the core of the play grew from one particular incident in the spring of that year as the presidential campaign began to heat up. He was the sole faculty protester of a visit to the school by the “Reagan-Bush All Stars.”
“It grew from there,” he said of his work.
The play explores issues such as how historical messages are “used and misused” by politicians and misunderstood by the public, he said, as well as how iconic images, such as those that relate to civil rights, are often used for political purposes. The place is set against the framework of how the main character is impacted by his own evolving understanding of his family background.
Meadow’s other play, “Inescapable Mutuality,” which premiered in Lexington in 2009, dealt with black-Jewish relations in the post-Civil War era through the 1980s. “Purple Hearts” is one of three plays that comprises a Camden trilogy along with “Nighthawks” and “Jersey Devil.”
Meadow visited the Firehouse — and Newburyport — for the first time this past weekend. Sitting in on a rehearsal, he said, he was impressed by the actors and director Maureen Daley.
Watching his words come to life, Meadow said, is always an enlightening moment as he sees how a new cast and director interpret the piece. The cast includes Damon Singletary, Lori Singletary, Conor Burke, Sandy Farrier, Ryan Freeman and Michael Rodriguez-Torrent.
Meadow plans to bring his wife, Cheryl, and his two children, Gabe, 19, and Zoe, 15, with him to the festival next week. “They were part of the whole process of me writing the play,” he said, as he would discuss his new scenes around the dinner table and seek his family’s input.
“That was a really important part of the process for me,” Meadow added.
IF YOU GO
What: New Works Festival
When: Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, 8 p.m.; Jan. 25 and Jan. 26, 8 p.m.
Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport
How: Tickets are $13 per evening or $38 for a 4-day festival pass. For more information or to view the festival’s schedule, visit www.firehouse.org. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the box office at 978-462-7336.
TAKING THE STAGE
Below is the complete schedule of performances for this year’s New Works Festival:
FRIDAY, JAN. 18
“Purple Hearts,” Merrill Meadow
SATURDAY, JAN. 19
“The Renewal,” Richard Westcott
“Second Look,” Patrick Gabridge
“A Bloomsbury Proposal,” Carl A. Rossi
“I’ll Have What She’s Having,” Alexandra Crawford
“Inmates,” Stephen Faria
“Marital Prospects from Hell,” Priya Tahiliani
“Memento Murray,” Christopher Lockheardt
FRIDAY, JAN. 25
ONE ACT AND SHORTS
“Till That Lucky Day,” John Minigan
“No Sheet,” Susan Ferber
“Talking,” Shari D. Frost
“Your Face is Familiar,” Jay MacNamee
SATURDAY, JAN. 26
“Fifteen Minutes,” Shari D. Frost
“In the Arms of the Tornado,” Andrea Fleck Clardy
“Curse the Darkness,” Patrick Gabridge
“Waking Up,” Steven Eimert
“4’ 33” In Rehearsal: An Absurdist Comedy,” David W. Frank
“The Competition,” Christopher Lockheardt
“Clueless & Lark Variations,” Gregory Hischak