Players by the Sea is celebrating its 50th birthday by offering its community,and two local playwrights, quite an extraordinary gift: the New Voices playwriting contest. 

After a half-century in the Bold New City, from recently offering the rock musical Hair to original productions by Al Letson, Barbara Colaciello, Ian Mairs, and others, the Jax Beach theatre is awarding two contest winners not only a place on their stage, but a year-long process of development. 

The theater’s Associate Director Bradley Akers says contestants should submit a two-page proposal and 10 pages of dialogue, but not a complete play. In fact, finishing the play will be part of the entire process.

The antithesis of theatre is a theatre’s going stale, and it’s important the city make itself part of new American theatrical directions.

“I love Edward Albee and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but theatre can’t survive alone on Albee and Arthur Miller,” Akers says.

The young associate director is proud that Players has never shied away from tough topics. Nor, in fact, has he. 

When he was a student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Akers’ theatre department staged Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The play depicts the real-life protests of Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas’s Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for bitter homophobic sloganeering across the country. In turn, Phelps and his gang threatened a protest at Douglas Anderson, though they never showed up.

Though edginess is not a requirement for winning proposals, Akers points out that Players has always faced its audiences with courage and a certain edge. 

“From 1966 to 2016, Players by the Sea has been constant in looking for work that sparks a discussion in our community. That’s how we plan a season.”

In 2015, Olivia Gowan co-founded a playwrights’ group called the Groundling Scribes, and 2016 opens with her play Cotton Alleyrunning at Players throughout January. It’s the third piece the group has produced that made its way to the stage, following Jason Woods’s St. George and the Dragon and Kelby Siddons’s To the Sea.

Gowan says she’s excited about New Voices, that her group and the contest both come from a groundswell of creative excitement in Jax theatre.

“It’s part of the same desire and goal,” she says. “We wanted the community to see the importance of local plays and the theatres to see how much we wanted this. Players by the Sea wanted it too. This effort is only going to grow.”

Gowan describes her new play Cotton Alley as a Southern Gothic concerned with abandonment and healing and reflecting her love/hate relationship with the South.

“There are some things about Southern life, I can breathe or smell or taste it, and in three seconds, tell you a story about it. But part of that storytelling is that the South has a lot of demons.”

She jokes that writers are dangerous because they’re always looking for material. Others might be careful what kind of material they accidentally provide.

“Lines people have said to me that hurt me or that make me laugh, I give those lines to my characters,” she says.

The greatest difficulty in writing is the personal mandate “to write from your vulnerability,” but perhaps even harder is removing yourself from the play when you’ve written it, handing it over to the interpretation of the directors and actors.

“You have to build and have great trust,” Gowan says, “because your work can never stand on its own if you’re not able to let it go.”

But these challenges are part of what makes New Voices such an impressive opportunity. It’s not just a writing contest, but also a chance for playwrights to work with “a team of professionals” from page to stage.

The two winning playwrights will finish their plays, make revisions according to developments in process, and see it through to production in the spring of 2017. 

“They’ll learn how to bring the piece to life,” Gowan says, “how differently words sound on a stage than on a page, and then they’ll learn to let go, to become part of the team, the process, seeing how the directors, actors, sound technicians, and others transform it.”

Winning playwrights will watch their work evolve through “living room-style” readings, public readings, auditions, and the guidance of a dramaturge.

Akers says New Voices is a natural outgrowth of the theatre’s history. 

“We are community theatre,” he says. “For decades we’ve been about finding the new voice, the local voice, the voice from the community that has something to say to the community.”

Players will accept submissions from the four-county area through March 1, and the winners will be announced on, well, April Fools’ Day.

Though Akers hesitates to give too much advice for contestants, he suggests they think about the lifelong mission of Players by the Sea:

“Be bold. Players by the Sea is bold. We want to make bold choices and do bold shows. And we want your new work to be bold.”