Now in its second season, What If? Productions is still a newbie to Charleston’s theater scene, but they’ve already made a name for themselves by taking chances on some of the most innovative theater in town. Contemporary plays like Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche and Durang, Durang, Durang have raised eyebrows and attracted fans, and now What If? is delivering a fresh dose of contemporary theater with their inaugural Playwrights Festival.

“Our goal is producing contemporary theater, and what’s more contemporary than something that was just created?” says Artistic Director Kyle Barnette. In working to promote emerging artists, the company invited playwrights from across the Southeast to enter their original works into the competition. Expecting no more than 20 entries, Barnette was shocked to receive 75. Joined by a jury of local and national theater professionals, Barnette gradually whittled down the list to three finalists. Selections from those plays will be presented at staged readings this weekend, and the winner’s play will be produced during next year’s Fest.

“They’re all comedies in a way but completely different comedies and totally different acting styles,” Barnette says of the finalists. They include Brian B. Jones’ After. Life., a two-person play about a young man who wakes up to find that he’s dead and how he comes to terms with it. Evan Guilford-Blake’s Mountain Greenery looks at a couple who goes camping and encounters a man in a bear suit who’s been living in the woods. Tyler Stuart’s Practice Child follows a man in the hospital with a brain tumor and his dealings with his screwed-up family. None of the winning playwrights are from Charleston.

After the readings, audience members will be invited to give feedback and vote on their favorites. In addition, night one of the two-day festival will include a performance from the Charleston Dance Project with a short talk about the construction of choreography. “We’re trying to break it down and show audiences the creation process building up to the final product,” Barnette says. This is also when participants in the 24-hour Playhouse will meet and start putting together an on-the-fly production, which will be presented the following night after the winning playwright is announced. Entropy Ensemble’s Andrew Walker will also host a workshop on underscoring music for theater.

“It’s all new ground for us. We’re just trying to do our part,” Barnette says. “Most people don’t realize the importance of good writing. You can be a great performer, but if you have horrible dialogue to present, you can only go so far. We really want to celebrate the art of creative writing and how it accelerates a good piece of theater.”

Next year, What If? hopes to expand the event to two weekends and attract even more emerging playwrights. “I like to be a part of creating new art,” Barnette says.

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