Backstage: What makes a good play?

James Pagliasotti

James Pagliasotti, president of the Ashland New Plays Festival Board of Directors, recently served as board vice president of the Schneider Museum of Art. Before moving to Ashland, Pagliasotti served as a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Colorado. We chatted over coffee at The Growler Guys in Ashland.

EH: What makes a good play?

JP: Like all art, you want something that generates reaction in people; you want something that touches them, for better or for worse. The first thing that I look for is something that people find emotionally or intellectually compelling. I think a bad play is one that people are bored with. If it generates a response, I think it has done its job.

EH: How does theater affect society and politics?

JP: Politics come and go. Art is what endures. I hope it reflects the best of who we are. But more than anything, I hope it reflects the truth of who we are. I hope that it does guide the political scene to some degree. If we are doing what we’re supposed to do, and that’s trying to reach for the truth, portray the truth to people, and stimulate their thought process about what’s going on around them, I hope it has a direct effect on politics. I guess we’re all old enough to know — that it’s very hard to steer that ship in a slightly different direction. I just hope we’ll all keep trying. I think that’s what it’s about.

EH: How is theater different from the other arts?

JP: There’s something so immediate about theater. When you see an incredible painting or sculpture, those things are static, they’re always going to be the same every time you see them. Theater, like all of the performing arts, is different every time. Also, what is so compelling about performing arts is the experience of a group of people (many of them strangers) gathering together in a space and sharing this experience.

It’s a really remarkable thing to sit with a group of people that you don’t know, and go through this emotional and intellectual experience together. If theater is really trying to touch our common humanity — when a performance of any type is successful, you see the way it resonates through the audience — they all ascend to a certain level of response.

EH: Do you think people in theater are different than those you encountered in the other arts?

JP: They’re possibly more theatrical. (Laughter) Good question. I think in the arts and in the nonprofit world generally, people are compelled to try to create something for the betterment of their community. What drives a lot of people is the desire to communicate. Part of it is the ability to work as a team to accomplish something. Part of it is to try to elevate the experience in their community. It’s that desire to help make something wonderful to share with the community. For the most part, it’s community driven. I oftentimes realize that the people in that audience demand that we do this, they really make it happen.

EH: How does your team of readers choose a play?

JP: We all have to put our personal baggage aside and look at it (whether we like the subject matter or not) as to what constitutes a good play: a compelling story well told, has a narrative arc, has well-developed characters, etc. We don’t expect that everything we get is in its best final form. What we hope to do is help the playwrights take it to the next level.

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Ashland is the place for Theatre

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