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Three playwrights discuss their turn in the spotlight for Steppenwolf’s ‘First Look’

FIRST LOOK playwrights (left right) Janine Nabers (Annie Bosh is Missing) AarCarter (The Gospel Franklin) Edith Freni (BuenVista). Credit: Joel

FIRST LOOK playwrights (left to right) Janine Nabers (Annie Bosh is Missing), Aaron Carter (The Gospel of Franklin) and Edith Freni (Buena Vista). Credit: Joel Moorman.

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First Look Repertory
of New Work, July 29-Aug. 25, Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted, $20 single ticket or $45 for three-play pass, (312) 335-1650;

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Updated: July 25, 2013 5:50PM

If it feels like the heat is on, it might be a whole lot more than the weather. Just blame it on Steppenwolf Theatre, where summer invariably signals working up a good sweat rather than hammock-swinging. Consider its First Look Repertory of New Work — the monthlong showcase that includes full-fledged “developmental productions” of three plays that run in rotating rep, plus free readings of three additional plays, all with high-power casts.

Now in its eighth season, the First Look project, staged in Steppenwolf’s ever-morphable Garage space, has established quite a track record. Since its inception, 12 of the 21 plays presented so far (by such writers as Marisa Wegrzyn, Kate Fodor, Laura Eason, Mia McCullough, Jason Wells and others) have gone on to enjoy their official world premieres at theaters throughout the country.

Here’s a brief overview of this season’s three fully mounted plays, along with comments on their genesis by way of their creators:

— Janine Nabers’ “Annie Bosh is Missing,” directed by Shade Murray. (The story of a 22-year-old girl fresh out of rehab, who’s working in a bowling alley and living in her mother’s ritzy Houston subdivision before wandering out onto the chaotic streets of Houston in post-Hurricane Katrina days.)

Nabers, 30 (a 2012 New York Theatre Workshop playwriting fellow): “I grew up in Houston, spent summers in Louisiana, and now live in New York. I had no direct contact with Katrina, but my parents did a lot of volunteering related to the aftermath, and when I went to visit them about 18 months after the whole thing they warned me that Houston [where many from New Orleans had relocated] had become a lot more violent.

“As it happened, one night, when I pulled into the parking lot at a movie theater, a guy put a gun to my head. Luckily the woman in the car next to mine screamed, he fled, and no one was hurt. But I started thinking about the whole idea of coming home and facing bizarre, unfamiliar circumstances. Plus I’ve always wanted to write about an addict in rehab (I’ve known some), and about trying to become ‘clean’ in a city that is suddenly ‘dirty’. I wanted to write without judgment, and even if Annie makes all the wrong decisions, I wanted people to root for her.”

— Edith Freni’s “Buena Vista,” directed by ensemble member Tim Hopper. (The story of Noah, whose planned weekend getaway at his family’s isolated Colorado cabin turns into a bizarre, revelatory, snowed-in nightmare experienced in the company of mom and dad.)

Freni, 34 (an athlete as well as a writer, who grew up in New York, has worked with many theaters there, and now teaches playwriting at the University of Miami): “I’ve spent the past five summers working at a performing arts camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and have come to know Colorado mountain towns — places that are isolated, and very high up, with very thin air that can make people act crazy.

“About 95 percent of the story in my play is fantasy — and I hope it will not be seen as a ‘classic’ dysfunctional family but rather, a borderline insane one that is not aware of its own insanity. What has impressed me about working at Steppenwolf, which most people think of as an actors’ theater, is how much focus is put on the play, with the luxury of having a director, a dramaturg and two stage managers sitting next to me. It really does ‘take a village’ to do this.”

— Aaron Carter’s “The Gospel of Franklin,” directed by Robert O’Hara. (The story of Franklin, a working class black man and “man of God” who mentors young white men at the factory where he works, but finds that it is his son, William, who comes to the rescue when HE needs help.)

Carter, 37, (Steppenwolf’s newly named Director of New Play Development, whose own writing focuses on “race, faith and obscure performance skills”): “I’m not the son of a preacher, but I grew up in Ohio, in a very religious family, with a black dad and a white mom. When I was young, my family really was close to ‘end time’ in its beliefs, though they’ve mellowed out to Methodist since then.

“This play is a work of fiction that draws on elements of growing up in a religious household, and also builds on a 10-minute play of mine done at The Gift Theatre. I’m an atheist now, but I hope this play gives people a more complex view of faith, and suggests how it can be both a sustaining and a disruptive force. My mom is coming to see the play. I tried to warn her.”

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