Article by Jay Handelman in the Sarasota Herald Tribune

Most playwrights struggle to make a living from their writing, but that doesn’t keep them from telling stories meant to be shared from the stage.

For every success story like Neil Simon, there are hundreds more hoping to have just a fraction of the number of productions (and royalties) he has enjoyed during his long career.

And more keep trying all the time, including a determined group of writers who have built the Sarasota Area Playwrights Society into a vibrant and supportive organization where writers can test out new scripts read by actors and get some constructive feedback.

The organization started in 2007 by George Loukides has grown from its initial six members to more than 65 writers and actors, many of whom gather for regularly scheduled workshops and seminars with a focus on readings of short and full-length plays in development.

“When I came here, my motive was to have people read my plays,” Loukides freely admits. “I started the group to help me write plays.”

Loukides continues to run the group with Arthur Keyser, a retired corporate lawyer who began exploring playwriting during a workshop at Florida Studio Theatre led by former education director Beth Duda, who suggested that he meet Loukides.

SAPS began growing through word of mouth and now the challenge is finding enough time to give all the writers a chance to have their scripts read.

Many of the participants have entered scripts in the Players Theatre and Theatre Odyssey new play festivals after initial readings at a SAPS session. Several have won and a few have had their work produced outside of Sarasota, including Bernie Yanelli, Connie Schindewolf, Cece Dwyer and Keyser.

“We have had some success stories and people who have benefited from the workshops and the readings,” Keyser said.

Yanelli has written two plays about Alexander Hamilton (long before the hit musical “Hamilton”), including “Too Close to the Shore,” which was presented in a New York workshop in 2014 and is still being developed for a professional production.

Dwyer won a national playwriting competition sponsored by the American Association of Community Theatre, and her play “The Seamstress” was produced in 2013 by the Hickory Community Theatre in Hickory, N.C.

One of the earliest members was Larry Parr, the author of plays including “Invasion of Privacy,” “My Castle’s Rockin’,” “Hi-Hat Hattie,” and “Shunned,” most of which had their debuts at Florida Studio Theatre. Loukides says that Parr is the only SAPS member he would classify as a professional playwright “because he’s actually making a living from it. The rest of us call ourselves playwrights because we write plays, but we don’t make money from it.”

Even though he had been produced dozens of times before joining SAPS, Parr said he still found value in the group.

“When you write a play, you do not know what you have until you can hear it read aloud,” Parr said. “Writing a play is the only kind of writing I know of that’s meant to be seen and heard. If you write something, you can read it 3,000 times and you still won’t know what you have until you hear it and see it on its feet.”

That’s why actors have always been part of the mix of members. Actors who are familiar from various performances in area theaters get to read new scripts and often play roles for which they would never be cast.

“We’re not age appropriate, most of the time,” Keyser said. “We’ll have someone 65 playing a 30-year-old or a teenager. It’s more important to hear the play than to get a great performance.” At a recent workshop, for example, the white-haired Dick Pell, played a young African-American boy.

Parr and Yanelli said the feedback they get from the actors and writers can help guide their scripts.

“I’ve heard a lot of observations that really helped me when I went back to work on a script,” Yanelli said. And Parr added that if certain comments don’t “make this play work, it can be a learning experience for the playwright so maybe he can work on the next one.”

Playwrights can’t respond to comments but they can answer questions. “We always begin with the positive and then you eventually get into what’s missing, what do the characters lack, how can you improve it?” Loukides said. “The playwright knows it well enough to see things.”

During one recent session, playwright Ron Pantello furiously scribbled comments from the group on a notepad, occasionally asking people to clarify their thoughts on his short play “Grand Brother,” about an inner city youth meeting a potential big brother who was a former NFL player.

That same evening began with a talk from Duda, who left her job at FST last year and is now the director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading through the Patterson Foundation.

Duda has written several plays, mostly for young audiences, that have been presented by FST as part of its Write-a-Play program, including new and updated versions of “Pinocchio” and “Rapunzel,” co-written with Adam Ratner. She also wrote a full-length “adult” play called “Up to Home.”

Duda uses Stuart Spencer’s book “The Playwright’s Guidebook” as her own kind of guide and she spoke of the importance for playwrights having a “deep need to talk about something” beyond the basic plot or storyline.

With “Rumplestiltskin,” her first play produced at FST, “the need was not to tell about a little man who stole a baby. I wanted to tell a story about truth and the importance of truth and what happens when we veer just a little off the path of truth and how it can spin into a web of deceit.”

With “Jack and the Enchanted Beanstalk,” she “wanted to tell a story about family, the importance of family and connection, not the riches that one would gather at the top of the beanstalk. What mattered was the connection Jack had with his sister, because I added a sister.”

The members also get assignments on occasion. At one session, Loukides asked everyone to come back with a 10-minute play about two women sitting on a porch. Parr’s version called “Line of Malarky” has now been produced 30-40 times at different theaters. “I never would have done it without that assignment.”

His full-length play “Shunned” also got started at a SAPS workshop. He had long wanted to write about the Amish community in Northern Indiana where he once lived.

“He did it twice at SAPS. It didn’t work the first time, and then he rewrote and people really responded to it,” Keyser said. The play has gone on to receive recognition at several theaters.

Parr said that members share information about contests which can “really beef up your bio, which looks good for theaters. It might help lead to a production and it might even get you money or at least an introduction to a theater.”

For those writers who are taking it seriously, Parr suggests setting up a home office with the ability to print labels and stamps. “They have to have everything they need at their fingertips so they can actually send out scripts instead of thinking about sending out scripts,” he said.