To playwrights, seeing their work read aloud for the first time in front of an audience can be excruciating.
In the past, the Colony playwrights gathering has even offered a designated space backstage where writers were free to pace while hearing their scripts performed, according to producer Salina Chatlain.
Yet that sometimes-painful step is essential in a work's progress from a script to — perhaps one day — a full production.
"Hopefully, what Colony does is create an environment where the playwright feels challenged artistically but kind of safe as well, because they're making themselves quite vulnerable. The work isn't ready. By definition, the Colony is helping the writer to develop the work," said Bernadette Sweeney, an associate professor of theatre at the University of Monana.
Sweeney has signed on a dramaturge, the theatrical version of an editor and adiviser for the 23rd annual Colony. The five-day event brings playwrights, local and visiting, to the University of Montana for workshops and staged readings to further their scripts. The Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional company in residence at UM, started the Colony 23 years for that very cause.
The addition of a dramaturge is a new feature this year. Sweeney will work with eight playwrights on their scripts, which will be presented for readings by a pool of local actors and longtime visiting actors and directors.
Dramaturges' roles are different for established or classic plays, Sweeney said. In those cases, she would research the play, the writer, its subject and context, among other tasks.
New works require other kinds of assistance.
"In a sense, a dramaturge role for a new playwright is almost like that of a midwife. You're just helping to make something happen," she said.
"If a playwright is bringing us to a very different place culturally or imaginatively, then I would speak to that and describe what I understand of what I read," she said.
Sweeney and Chatlain said that a first reading can reveal problems areas and provide a range of new insights. They'll see how the character dynamics work for the first time; or where there's potential for comedy.
Chatlain, a longtime actor, said in the past a script might produce laughs during rehearsal, but dead silence from the audience. That can mean it didn't work for a specific audience, or that it needs adjustments. It's part of the unpredictability of developing theater for a live audience.
"That's what so great about the Colony. They really need for these works to be given voice and embodied," Sweeney said.
Sweeney said the writers are free to use or ignore her opinions, and she's asked writers want kind of advice they want from her.
The playwrights this year are Martha Elizabeth, Jay Kettering, Laramie Dean, Carson Grace Becker, Shaun Gant, Cathy Capps, Shannon Siversten and Anita Vatshell, all of whom have participated in the Colony in years past.
Sweeney said the subject matter is topical, with a variety of genres and writing styles. (See sidebar for capsule descriptions of the plays and a schedule.)
The star guest this year is acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz. The Dramatist Guild Foundation has provided funding to bring writers like Baitz to events like the Colony. He'll present a staged reading of a new play and give a keynote address to open the event on Friday. (Baitz wasn't available to discuss the script.)
Among other honors, Baitz's work has twice made the final round for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, first in 1996 for "A Fair Country," and again in 2012 for "Other Desert Cities."
The Pulitzer site describes the latter as "a taut, witty drama about an affluent California couple whose daughter has written a memoir that threatens to reveal family secrets about her dead brother."
He's written for television and movies as well. He wrote the screenplay for "Stonewall," the 2015 film about New York City riots in which the gay community protested in response to police raids on clubs.
He also created "Brothers & Sisters," an ABC drama led by Sally Field.
Baitz hasn't visited the Colony before, which Chatlain said is "exciting, because he'll have all-new material" for the writers.