Neil LaBute, whose acidic portrayals of love and friendship have made him one of the most compelling, most controversial and most popular living American writers, has a couple of new plays out there.
“Reasons to Be Happy” — a follow-up to his tale of two troubled couples, “reasons to be pretty” — just closed off-Broadway. Starring Jenna Fischer, Fred Weller, Leslie Bibb and Josh Hamilton, it was not only written but also directed by LaBute.
“The Possible,” a short romance for two actors, is a bit different. It opens here on Friday, the keystone of the St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival, which runs through July 28. The new play will be staged at each festival performance (except the student show on Saturday), along with a rotating schedule of short, brand-new plays by aspiring writers.
Their work was chosen among hundreds of competitors whose scripts poured in from across the country. They will be staged simply but fully, directed and performed by well-known St. Louis theater artists.
LaBute, who will be on hand for the first two nights of the festival, thinks of it as a kind of busman’s holiday.
“I’m really only involved at the beginning — writing the thing — and the end — watching the thing,” LaBute says in an emai interview. He values his privacy; his quirks include a deliberate vagueness about his age (probably 50), the city where he lives (rumored to be Los Angeles) and his current marital status (although he was certainly married at one time).
“It’s fun and surprising to see where other artists take your work,” he says. “I will be able to sit back and watch with a freedom and a pleasure that’s always a bit more shackled with worry when you’ve directed something yourself. Then you are always on the clock.”
LaBute expects his experience with “The Possible” to be more relaxed than with “Reasons to Be Happy.”
“In St. Louis I expect to sit back and enjoy, and if someone drops a line or the theater has no air conditioning, then I can just throw my hands up in the air and let somebody else take care of it,” he says.
“Somebody else” is apt to be William Roth, co-founder and producing director of St. Louis Actors’ Studio and the engine behind the festival.
Roth first got in touch with the playwright a few seasons ago, when the Actors’ Studio mounted “The Shape of Things,” LaBute’s peculiar comedy about a college student who turns her “boyfriend” into an art-class project. That ripened into a 2011 evening of short plays by LaBute, “Just Desserts,” to which LaBute contributed a brand-new, one-woman piece titled “Bad Girl.”
“That’s when I floated the idea of a festival,” Roth says. “Neil is superbusy around the world and supergenerous with his time and his writing. ... He says he is thrilled to have a festival with his name on it, and that it’s great to have a home for his short work. I promised him that the festival will always have his name on it.”
This production features two curious details. One is the number of finalist playwrights who are well-known to St. Louis theatergoers as actors. The other is the Saturday performance of short plays by writers who are still in high school; at these staged readings, professional actors will give voice to the young authors’ work.
Being chosen “really means a lot,” says Joshua Thomas, who has performed with lots of local companies and just starred as Orsino in “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
Now, as he and his wife prepare to move to Los Angeles later this summer, he says he can’t think of a better way to sew up his career here than with his double role in the LaBute Festival: seeing his play “Kink” performed and acting in the high school plays.
He’s also pleased that the LaBute Festival is so inclusive, involving artists from troupes all over town, not just St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Besides Thomas, actors who will see their plays staged are Nancy Bell, Tyler Vickers (formerly of St. Louis) and Rachel Fenton, who performed “Bad Girl” two years ago. Fenton is acting in the festival, too.
“To me, LaBute’s work is centered around confession, and ‘Bad Girl’ was the perfect representation of his style,” says Fenton, who is heading for New York to train at the William Esper Studio. “New works can be intimidating because they are full of possibilities.”
Something similar can be said about the blank page.
Fenton says she hadn’t written anything in ages before she wrote “Blood Brothers,” the play featured in the festival. “Now I can’t stop,” she admits.
Fenton was in New York when she got the news that her play was picked for the LaBute Festival. “I was on top of the world!” she says, adding that the selection “rekindled a personal faith in my writing that I thought was long gone.”
LaBute, who acted in school but says he lacked passion for it, isn’t surprised when theater artists break out of their categories. Tracy Letts, he points out, has won Tony Awards for both acting and writing.
“I think actors often start writing or directing or producing out of frustration and a desire to have some control in their lives (instead of) waiting around for the phone to ring,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what they’ve written.
“There is something about this vocation that calls to me, and I will continue to do it for as long as it will have me. I like the solitude of writing the first draft and then the noisy fun of rewriting in the rehearsal room with actors and other creative types. The whole thing is just great.”
So why delay finding that out?
One of the student writers, Laura Townsend of Clayton High School, wrote her play for a class assignment; she was flabbergasted when her teacher urged her to submit it to the festival competition. She expects Saturday’s staged reading to be “awesome.”
“This gives you the experience of getting your work out there,” says Townsend, who will enter the University of Iowa in the fall. “Maybe you want to write, but why even try? So it can stay in your computer forever? That’s why this is really cool.”
Not only cool, says LaBute, but essential for students who want to discover how writing really works. He plans to attend the student readings, and he’s looking forward to meeting the authors.
“Young writers need a chance to be heard so that they can change and fix and enjoy the fruits of their labors — not much different than old writers, really,” he says. “Since they are so new to it, however, it’s even more important for them to get a taste of their work in the mouths of actors and in front of an audience. Nothing really happens in the theater until those three things meet: text-artist-audience.”
What LaBute New Theater Festival • When Friday-July 28; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; high school readings at 11 a.m. Saturday • Where Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue • How much $50 Friday-Saturday includes a post-show reception at the West End Grill & Pub with Neil LaBute and the playwrights; $30 general admission, $25 for students and older adults; the high school show is free • More info 1-800-982-2787 or Ticketmaster.com; 314-458-2978 or stlas.org