Stageworks Theatre starts its season this weekend with Lights Rise on Grace, a play that explores fear and family and love.
In bringing it here, Tampa's Stageworks is collaborating with the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit professional theaters that brings selected recent works around the country and the world. Consequently, the Tampa stop for Lights Rise on Grace is part of what the network calls a "rolling world premiere," even though it has played elsewhere.
The playwright, Chad Beckim, 42, is a founding co-artistic director of Partial Comfort Productions in New York. He began writing plays 10 years ago.
"I was an average actor," Beckim said in a telephone interview. "I was kind of there, like the scenery." A friend encouraged him to write plays, and he never stopped.
Like most playwrights, Beckim's work draws heavily on his own experience and is not afraid to tackle gritty issues. Once a week, he teaches theater and ensemble building to eighth-graders in an east New York school. He set And Miles to Go, a 2013 play, in a New York public high school replete with disengaged, frustrated students, many with criminal records, and apathetic teachers, in an environment ruled not by educational needs but standardized testing.
Another play, 2011's After, shines a spotlight on the criminal justice system through the struggle of a man wrongly convicted of rape, struggling to readjust to a world he had not seen for 17 years.
"We have more people in prison than anyone," Beckim said. "The way to deal with these problems is not to just throw people away."
Lights Rise on Grace was named Outstanding Play for its workshop at the New York International Fringe Festival. The one-act features title character Grace (Jessica Stone at Stageworks) navigating her attachment to two men, one of whom is in prison, and a cultural tug-of-war with her Chinese immigrant parents.
It is also a commentary on society's treatment of castoffs in prison as well as women and people of color and the challenges of finding hope amidst devastation and loss.
The plot might have been hatched years ago, when Beckim dated a woman who had refused her parents' plans for her arranged marriage. The woman refused and was disowned.
For Karla Hartley, Stageworks' producing artistic director and the director of Lights Rise on Grace, the show "is about the fear of breaking out of your presupposed notions of your family, and what it means to love someone you are not expected to love."
Hartley is excited that Stageworks is the only theater in the Tampa Bay area currently participating in the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program, one of just a couple in the state.
"We want to make sure we engage in a theatrical process that moves the form forward," Hartley said. "I'm not sure you can do that with plays that have been produced here, there and everywhere."
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.