Becky McLaughlin

Playwright Becky McLaughlin is seen at the office of Samuel French publishers in New York.

Every summer for 44 years, renowned play publishing firm Samuel French has held its Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival. More than 900 playwrights submitted plays this year.

When the dust settled on Aug. 24, local playwright Becky McLaughlin’s “Stay for Dinner” was one of six plays selected for publication and representation by Samuel French.

The Winston-Salem connection to this year’s festival actually started in 1998 in a small central Virginia town.

Madison, Va. — between Charlottesville and Culpeper — is where McLaughlin and Caitlin Stafford met in eighth grade at Wetzel Middle School, then competed in forensics and drama at Madison County High School.

McLaughlin and Stafford both chose Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to pursue a bachelor of fine arts degree in performance. Stafford completed hers in 2007; McLaughlin transferred to UNC-Greensboro after two years to complete a bachelor of arts degree instead. As part of that program, she took her first and, so far, only class in playwriting.

Both women eventually came to Winston-Salem. Stafford co-founded Spirit Gum Theatre Company in 2013. In the meantime, McLaughlin married and, with husband, Josh, spent a decade away from the theater raising three children.

Not coincidentally, when McLaughlin returned to the stage, it was in Spirit Gum’s 2015 production of “Stop Kiss.”

The rest, as they say, followed from there.

McLaughlin became more active in area theater involvement, both on and off stage.

Then, she and Stafford spent time during a vacation trip to England talking about writing. Having written a few short pieces in college, McLaughlin wanted to pick it up again.

For a Halloween-flavored first fundraiser in 2018, she had three theme-fitting short plays ready for Spirit Gum: “Stay for Dinner,” “Dark Web,” and “A Night in Keen Cottage.”

Shortly after that event, with encouragement from Stafford and unanimous recommendation from those involved with the short plays, McLaughlin submitted “Stay for Dinner” to Samuel French for the summer 2019 festival.

In June, Samuel French staff selected 30 finalists, including McLaughlin, from the more than 900 submissions.

French expects the playwrights to assemble a director, cast, costumes and stage set pieces for at least one performance.

“When I wrote the play,” McLaughlin said, “I didn’t really think about the fact that there were eight actors for a 10-minute play.”

Fortunately, Sally Meehan had directed the reading of the play last fall and agreed to direct it again.

“I swear Sally could read my mind,” McLaughlin said about her director. “As a result, I stayed mostly at a distance from the creative process once we got started.”

The four Spirit Gum company members — Stafford, Michael Ackerman, Sarah Jenkins and Jon Furr — took roles, bolstered by New York-based actors (Rachel Hundert, Sean Riehm, Beth Devlin and Brad Heikes) who were known or recommended by the Winston-Salem group.

McLaughlin’s husband played an invaluable transportation-related role.

Director Meehan put the cast through their one three-hour rehearsal, then oversaw the preliminary performance and the Saturday-night final.

“This script is so genuine and relatable,” she said, “and our preparations went seamlessly. The actors brought an upbeat freshness to the characters, and took direction well. I’m just really proud of the Winston-Salem theater community.”

So, with her first published play appearing soon with a major publishing house, what’s next for Becky McLaughlin?

“There’s this full-length play I’ve been working on,” she said. “I’m going to try to get that ready to send out.”

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