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A rigorous elimination round. A panel of three judges. Audience participation voting. It sounds like another reality TV show. But this is better -- with just as much drama. It's the Sixth Annual Festival of New American Plays at the Firehouse Theatre, in which the audience helps determine who will win the title of Best New American Play. That translates to two nights of inexpensive and interactive live entertainment to stave off the winter doldrums while sparing your worn holiday wallet.

The festival is the cornerstone of the Firehouse Theatre's mission to nurture new American theater. It's becoming a notable contest for new American playwrights as seen from the record 200 entrants.

"Our festival is much better known now, so we are getting more plays and better-quality plays," says Firehouse Theatre Artistic Director Carol Piersol — speaking from New York while she's scoping out new plays to produce at the New York Playwrights Lab. For the audience, that means better plays from which to choose the winner.

The two finalists are "Tiny Bubbles" by Richard Willett and Jon Busch's "Pet Shop Days." The process for determining the finalists is long and involved. Each entry is read by two people from a pool of volunteers. Two "yes" votes get the entry to the next round, where a panel of expert judges (screenwriter Megan Holley, actor Bill Patton and Hollins University playwriting faculty member Todd Ristau) decides which two plays will be performed on the Firehouse stage.

More than 20 plays made it to the judging phase this year, resulting in seven semi-finalists and two finalists. The judges had a difficult task, Piersol says: "We had three really good plays this year but could only pick two to produce. It was a tough decision." Audience voters must see both plays before casting a ballot.

"Tiny Bubbles," which shows Thursday, Jan. 17, and Saturday, Jan. 19, is the story of a middle-aged man who contemplates his own alcoholism when his housemate/best drinking buddy joins Alcoholics Anonymous. "It is not one of those depressing going-down-into-the-depths kind of alcoholic stories," says the play's director, Christopher Shorr. "Richard [Willett] leads us down some expected roads but adds some interesting and fun twists and turns. The main character has a fun sense of humor and great dialog … it makes for an enjoyable evening."

Busch's play, "Pet Shop Days," addresses the gobbling-up of small-town identities by big corporations and developers. Pete, a punked-out 20-something, works for an independent pet store in what was recently the "country" (think Short Pump or Powhatan). A big chain restaurant wants to take over the shop's location, so Pete convinces a band to play a benefit concert to save the store. "It is a story about urban and corporate sprawl and how it is affecting us as a culture, with a little love story thrown in," says Billy Christopher Maupin, who directs the play. "Pet Shop Days" runs Friday, Jan. 18, and Sunday, Jan. 20.

Shows are at 7:30 p.m. and cost $5 (a suggested minimum donation) per play. So for as little as $10, you can exercise your critical muscle and help determine the Best New American Play of 2007. That has to be at least as important as the next "American Idol," right? S

Firehouse Theatre's Sixth Annual Festival of New American Plays runs Jan. 17-20 at the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. All shows at 7:30 p.m.; suggested minimum donation of $5. For tickets call 355-2001 or visit www.firehousetheatre.org.

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