Chris Rosenblum | New State Theatre play series tackles hot-button social issues

Richard Biever hopes the time is right for thought-provoking drama.

Actually, as the State Theatre’s artistic director and a prominent figure in local theater circles, he hopes that’s the case all the time.

But on the cusp of starting a new community initiative, he’s counting on it even more.

Biever has assembled and is directing the State’s Contemporary Play Reading Series, which will feature monthly dramatic readings of plays addressing issues of race, gender, orientation, body image and other hot-button social topics. Plays will be staged with minimal casts and props in the State’s cozy upstairs venue, The Attic.

If all goes according to plan, the shows will generate comments. Unlike with conventional theater, however, audiences will be welcome to share their views before they leave.

Discussions about the stories — with Biever and cast members taking part — will follow the performances. The idea for a show-and-tell-your-opinion series came to Biever last year, a few months after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke and turned Penn State and State College upside down.

He wondered “how the theater could respond to that and help bring healing to the community.”

“So immediately, because I’m a theater guy, I think of theater pieces that would help speak to issues, and that would help the audience think through the issues they’re facing, but from a distance,” Biever said.

“You watch somebody else go through something in a play, and it may not even be about the thing we’re dealing with directly, but it’s a crisis moment that is being dealt with in some way.”

Afterward, he said, audience members might have more insight into the continuing reverberations from Sandusky’s crimes and their own responses to months of upheaval.

“Sometimes it’s easier to deal with an issue when you see somebody else going through something,” Biever said. “It gives perspective to your problem.”

Monday launches the series with “How the World Began,” the first of eight one-act plays never before produced locally. All but one were written in the past five years.

As with all the plays, showtime is 7:30 p.m., with tickets costing $9.

“How the World Began” centers on a rural Kansas town recovering from a devastating tornado. Into the shattered and mourning community comes a Manhattan woman to teach at a makeshift high school.

Sparks arise when she makes an off-hand remark about the origins of life, leading to residents’ anger and the distress of a disturbed boy.

After an August hiatus, the series resumes Sept. 29 with “4000 Miles.” A 21-year-old coping with a traumatic loss moves in with his grandmother for a difficult month in her New York City apartment.

“Clybourne Park,” a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner showing Oct. 20, depicts a neighborhood’s battles, 50 years apart, over the same house — the first to prevent a sale to a black family and the other to stop gentrification.

On Nov. 17, “Seminar” follows the fortunes of four young writers thrown together in one of their apartments for a 10-week writing seminar full of romance, tension and clashes.

December will bring another break, and then on Jan. 26, the dark comedy “Speech & Debate” focuses on three teenagers coping with a sex scandal in Salem, Ore.

“Fat Pig,” on Feb. 16, tackles notions of beauty and loyalty through the story of a man who falls in love with a bright, vivacious woman on the heavy side, only to encounter social prejudice and his own moral reckoning.

A gay white playwright and a black actress are the heart of “The Submission” on March 23. He pens a play about a black family but, fearing theater companies won’t accept his work as authentic, hires the actress to pretend to be the author. As the charade unravels, both eventually have their assumptions of each other challenged.

For the series finale on April 27, the acclaimed “The Laramie Project” tells the true tale of Matthew Shepard, the slain gay University of Wyoming student kidnapped, beaten and left to die while tied to a fence.

Such a hard-hitting, trenchant lineup may not have registered well last year as the dust settled from Sandusky, Biever said, explaining the timing. Shell-shocked residents, he suspects, wanted to escape reality rather than examine it.

He’s hoping these days the public is in a more contemplative mood.

“It seemed like maybe it was too raw before. We were too in the midst of it to be able to step back and get perspective,” he said. “It seems like the time passing has been a good thing.”