As Mercedes White waited in the darkness of the Urbanite Theater, the terror built inside her. As an actor, she’d stood on the stage countless times, hundreds of eyes watching her every move, and as many ears hanging on every word, but this was something different. Now the playwright, her entire soul would be bared onstage, and her latest, The Space In Between, came from such a personal place, written in a two-week flurry of artistic outpour. One of only three selected for Urbanite’s inaugural Modern Works Festival, the budding playwright had been ecstatic, but now harbored second thoughts. A play from a black, Mexican, lesbian actor from Chicago? What would this surrounding audience of older white Sarasotans think? How could they relate? She prepared for disaster.

Mercedes White  (left) and Cindy De  La Cruz engage in some workshopping at the festival.


And then she won.

Returning to Sarasota this October 8­–13, the Modern Works Festival exists precisely to give emerging voices like White’s the support and amplification they need to become confident creatives in their field. Accepting unproduced submissions from women playwrights in early summer, a panel of 15 volunteer readers narrows the list to a chosen three. This trio then comes to the Urbanite for a week of rehearsal, culminating in a series of staged readings for the voting audience, which determines the winner. “It’s an opportunity to champion women in the arts,” says Urbanite Co-founder and festival organizer Summer Dawn Wallace, and that mission extends beyond the chosen playwrights.

In addition to being written by a woman, each production must also contain substantial female roles, meaning that both women actors and directors find opportunity at Modern Works as well, and the festival becomes a nexus of women-focused creativity and collaboration. Working with professional actors, playwrights hear their words come alive for the first time, making whatever tweaks prove necessary; working with provided dramaturges, they polish character arcs and shore up theme. Last year even saw a visit from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok, whose Cost of Living won the award in 2018. Still, says White, few experiences measure up to thoughtful feedback from an engaged audience like at Modern Works. “Even if I didn’t win,” she says, “that experience alone would have made my day.” But she did win, and she cried. “It was affirmation that my stories are appealing, and I just need to keep writing.”

This year sees the festival expand as it contracts, condensing the events into a smaller time frame, but with more of them. Patrons will now be able to see more than one reading in a day, and supplement that experience with ancillary attractions featuring other local female artists, such as a solo performance from Roxanne Fay, who starred in Urbanite’s 2018 production of Apples In Winter. In a collaboration with New College of Florida, the festival will also feature special readings of a play written by a New College student. “I hope the festival just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Wallace, “and we can become something that not only Urbanite patrons look forward to, but something the whole city of Sarasota looks forward to every year.”