Audiences can sneak a peek behind the curtain of the South Bay’s premier theater company this weekend when TheatreWorks invites patrons backstage to see world-class playwrights in action.

Theatergoers may see five new plays and musicals in their early stages (no pun intended) at TheatreWorks’ annual New Works Festival, Saturday, Aug. 9, through Aug. 17 at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre. The festival, now in its 13th year, also allows the shows’ writers to receive audience feedback as their creations are developed.

This year’s eclectic crop includes the musical Norman Rockwell’s America by Lynne Kaufman and Alex Mandel, about the celebrated U.S. illustrator; Rajiv Joseph’s political drama Describe the Night, about a mysterious plane crash in Europe; Jahn Sood’s Depression-era, circus-set musical The Disappearing Man; Melissa Ross’s The Entomologist’s Love Story, about the affairs of two Natural History Museum scientists; and A Tokyo Fish Story by Kimber Lee, about a traditional sushi master in the modern world.

Giovanna Sardelli is overseeing her first festival as director of the New Works Festival. It’s her job to be on the lookout for promising pieces, forge relationships with playwrights and composers, and comb through the many submissions the company receives annually.

“I’m incredibly excited because I love the artists I’ve included this year and what they’re exploring. I can’t wait to see how the community responds,” she says. Some of the artists boast impressive resumes. Mandel wrote songs for Pixar’s Brave and is an NPR music director. Joseph was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Others are greener.

“Diversity was important to me. It’s one of the core values of TheatreWorks so I wanted to make sure the plays really did span the globe in their subject matter,” Sardelli says.

This year also features one special “extra” performance. Shakina Nayfack will present her One Woman Show, an autobiographical cabaret piece about the personal experiences of the transgender artist and educator.

“There’s not a community right now that isn’t struggling with it, figuring it out,” Sardelli says of the issues addressed by Nayfack’s show. “Schools are having this conversation, families are, and Shakina just shines a light on it in such a playful, interesting way.”

Robert Kelley, the company’s artistic director, says the festival “has proved to be a wonderful breeding ground for new works for the American theater,” noting that many of the works featured have gone on to have successful productions nationally and internationally, such as the Tony Award-winning Memphis. “It’s the highlight of the TheatreWorks season,” he says.

The playwrights only get a few days of rehearsal time with the actors and the plays are presented as staged readings—meaning no costume changes or scenery, minimal choreography, and actors reading from scripts. Not spending time on memorization or elaborate staging allows the writing to shine, and leaves wiggle room for experimentation. “We’re getting essentially a rough draft,” Kelley says, adding that playwrights will often tweak lines, scenes or tunes between performances at the festival, which can be rewarding for repeat viewers. “We’ve found a reasonable amount of people who will come back and see the same show to see what’s changed. It’s not unusual that there will be a new song added as it goes along,” he said.

Kelley thinks TheatreWorks’ Silicon Valley setting is ideal for new works to blossom.

“We’re in an area that values innovation so strongly. Our audiences really love being part of the process,” he says.

Festivalgoers can take part in that process by responding to the questionnaires created by the playwrights, either at the performance or online. “They’ve made a lot of interesting comments and critiques and encouragement that have helped these pieces to grow,” Kelley says. Audiences can also participate in a panel discussion with the artists, held on the final day of the festival.

“I hope we help the authors identify the heart and spine of their stories so that they take them into production really confident about what makes the story work, what makes it unique and what they’ll need to tell it on a larger scale,” Sardelli says. “And for the audience members, I hope they will be engaged, entertained and curious about where every single one of these pieces will go next.”