In unique approach, playwrights stage Salem show, then turn to audience for critique

The play “Bethany Sees the Stars” debuts Wednesday at the Lee Pelton Theatre. (Courtesy/Dale Peterson)

Thomas Nabhan and his wife, a professor at Willamette University, had been going to student productions at the college for more than a decade when they asked: “Why aren’t the seats filled?”

They started brainstorming ideas for getting more people to come to campus.

Enter Theatre 33, a play development company that exclusively focuses on new plays from Northwest playwrights.

Many are set in the Pacific Northwest and depict the region’s themes, culture and history, Nabhan said.


Playwrights come to Salem for a weeks long rehearsal process. They take notes and edit along the way, revising right up to opening night.

After the performance, the audience weighs in.

“When the audience comes to see a show, they know it’s being done for the first time,” Nabhan said.

The company is now in its sixth season. It typically produces three new plays during the summer.

“We don’t want a script that’s fully developed or one that’s really rough. We want a script that’s kind of in the sweet spot. That’s not quite there for full production,” Nabhan said.

Emily Golden’s play, “Bethany Sees the Stars,” debuts Wednesday.

Since she started the rehearsal process, Golden estimates she’s rewritten a third of the play.

“Every experience like this helps you grow as a playwright. And the skills you learn in this rehearsal room are going to help you in the future,” she said.

Golden’s play casts a lot of younger actors, and she said it’s helpful having real teenagers in the show to clarify the play.

“When a teenager is reading a script and it doesn’t make sense it’s really obvious,” she said.

The playwright graduated from Willamette University in 2013. When she heard about the program after leaving Salem, she decided to submit her work.

“New plays are kind of fragile, so it’s important to submit them with somebody you trust,” Golden said.

Golden sees value in the talk with the audience after the show, but is really looking forward to feeling how the audience is reacting.

“There’s a certain like charge in the room, there’s an energy you can feel when they’re with the play,” she said. “For me the most valuable part is just being in the room with them and feeling their reaction in the moment.”

Golden’s play is about a girl who gets a letter inviting her to be on the first manned mission to Mars. 

She didn’t want to give too much away, but said the play is about friendship and making decisions about whether to stay in one place.

Golden, who’s from Seattle, drew inspiration from walking around every night to view Colorado’s starry night skies after moving to the state without knowing many people.

“Playwriting can be really solitary and it’s hard to give voice to a diverse room of characters when you’re just by yourself,” she said.

Seeing the actors read lines helps her think of their voice when she’s editing the dialogue.

“I have these actors, I have their voices in my head now and that really helps me nail down what they’re going to say and do,” Golden said.

She said the actors get excited when she brings in rewrites and it holds her accountable.

“The bulk of what I’m doing is adding dimension to one of the characters,” Golden said. “Actors love that stuff.”

She said she adds a magical realism element to all her plays, which makes them highly theatrical. Golden said people don’t want to see a movie played out, “They want to see something written and meant for the stage.”

The play runs from Wednesday, July 10, to Saturday, July 13. Shows start at 7 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. showing on July 13 and 14 at the Lee Pelton Theatre at Willamette University located at 289 12th St SE. Admission is free with a $10 suggested donation. More information can found on Theatre 33’s website or by calling 971-599-1029.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.