TheatreWorks’ annual and ambitious New Works Festival is in full swing. The event features five plays-in-the-making at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Now in its 11th year, the festival allows playwrights and composers to present their works in developmental productions and staged readings, and then hear feedback from audience members. The artists can absorb the notes, and the audience is welcome to return to see if their ideas were put to use.

“The audience is able to participate but on the terms of the artist,” says Meredith McDonough, director of the festival, “as opposed to a free-for-all. So it’s great. They have questions for the process. They read those questions in advance and they then can think about and reflect on those as they’re watching the piece unfold knowing that ultimately, their opinion matters.”

This year’s lineup of five shows in repertory comes hard on the heels of the world premiere of Upright Grand, a play with live music by Laura Schellhardt. McDonough shares a long relationship with Schellhardt, having attended college with her and directing a number of her plays.

“Upright Grand was one of the readings with did at the festival last year,” McDonough explains. “Over the course of the past two years, [Schellhardt] sent me scenes and drafts and bits and pieces. We put it in the festival, and it was a huge hit. I think this play is right in TheatreWorks sweet spot, which is this confluent play and music, and it’s looking at parent/child relationships but also really looking at sentimentality in a lovely way. And when you look at TheatreWorks mission, to celebrate the human spirit, they run exactly together.”

Coming back to TheatreWorks is writer Paul Gordon, who in 2007 debuted his play Emma, which won a Bay Area Critics Circle Award that year. Gordon enjoyed his time at TheatreWorks, really finding the audiences’  insight great and helpful.

“It was an amazing experience,” Gordon says. “Without it, I’m not sure Emma would have been nearly as successful.  Really, just ‘hearing’ an audience’s response to a work in progress is invaluable. You can tell what is working and what isn’t just by listening to your audience. It isn’t just the amount of laughs or applause one receives—or doesn’t receive. There is an energy in the room that allows you to ‘feel’ what’s working and what isn’t.”

This year, Gordon and writing partner Jay Gruska will present Being Earnest, a take on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest set in London’s mod era. Gordon wanted his musical version to take place in the 1960s to give it a bit of a musical twist.

“I love the music of the early ’60s, and it just so happened that the ‘style’ of London in 1964 is very Edwardian and lent itself to the fashion of Oscar Wilde himself. Also, in 1964 we still have the values of the 1950s, which were still considered conservative and can easily mirror the values of the Wilde’s 1890s London.”

The other plays are The Loudest Man on Earth, a romantic tale about a journalist and a deaf stage director; Triangle, a musical with a time-traveling plot; Sleeping Rough, a compelling modern drama; and The Trouble With Dog, another musical, this time filtered through Kafka’s “The Metamorphsis.” A panel discussion with the artists takes place this Sunday at 7:30pm.

News Works Festival runs through Aug. 19; $19–$25
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto