Three actors sit around two tables formed to shape an L. Their director, Andrew Harris, is at the head of one table, tapping the eraser of his pencil on the hard surface as the actors read from loose pages bound in three-ring binders.

Off to the side, playwright Kieron Barry listens intently, barely raising his head from the script. Pages turn in unison as one line yields to the next.

This is the grunt work that happens in the making of a play. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous, and it’s certainly not something that audiences often get to see.

But the curtain comes up on the creative process this week, when Portland Stage Company hosts its 23rd Little Festival of the Unexpected. The week-long event is dedicated to public readings of new plays.

Four playwrights are in residence at the theater, where they work with professional actors and directors to present staged readings of their scripts before an audience for the first time.

Input from the audience is not only welcome, but vital.

“If a chef comes up to you and says, ‘Is there too much salt in this?’ You just might say, ‘Yes, there is,’ ” said Barry, whose play, “Tomorrow in the Battle,” will get a reading at 8 p.m. Saturday. “We welcome that input.”

This is Barry’s first time at Portland Stage. His play had a reading in London in 2009 and another later in Los Angeles. He’s reworked it, cut it and rewrote it. Audience reaction on Saturday will go a long way toward determining if the show is ready for its debut.

The Little Festival of the Unexpected allows the audience to experience the “messiness and excitement” of the creative process, said the theater’s executive and artistic director, Anita Stewart.

Added Dan Burson, the theater’s education manager, “This is an opportunity to take part in the creative process of making new plays. These are all new plays in development which have not yet had their world premiere but will in the future.

“This is the chance to see part of the creative process and to be in the room when the playwright, the director and the cast work things out.”

This year’s lineup includes two familiar names: Maine playwrights John Cariani and Bess Welden. Welden developed her comedy “The Passion of the Hausfrau” through the Little Festival, and it received its debut at Portland Stage in 2009. The other playwright is John Biguenet, who is presenting the comedy “Broomstick.”

This is Cariani’s third Little Festival residency. He is best known for writing “Almost, Maine” and “Last Gas,” both of which were workshopped at the Little Festival and later presented on the mainstage. His play “Love/Sick” will get a staged reading at 2 p.m. Saturday, and is slated for the mainstage in the 2012-13 season at Portland Stage.

Cariani likes this festival because it affords him the chance to work with professional actors and directors “who care about your play. They are there to help you make it better. They give your play its first time in front of an audience, and not just read but actually on its feet.”

For Cariani, the week is all about solving problems. If a line doesn’t work, actors will tell him. If audiences do not laugh at his jokes, he will rewrite them.

Burson is proud that Portland Stage makes this commitment to new work.

“From my point of view, new work is the heart and soul of the theater. If we cannot develop new work that responds to the changing mind-set and changing tastes of the audience, then we will just present museum pieces,” he said. “New work is vital to stay in touch with our audiences and to stay in touch with what is going on in Maine and around the country.

“Through this festival, Portland Stage is contributing to the overall fabric of the national theater community.”

In addition to its work with professional writers, Portland Stage also supports the creative process of emerging playwrights through the Young Writers Project for high school students. The festival includes readings of short plays by students from Cape Elizabeth, Brooklin and Buxton.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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