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Going Public: River Campus Hosts Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival

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https://news.semo.edu/
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The Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival honors new American plays that provide dynamic performance opportunities for college-aged actors.

The festival endeavors both to recognize playwrights for their outstanding work and to provide a resource for universities across the country to identify dynamic plays with robust roles for college-aged actors for production at their institutions.

The 2021 Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival will be held in person at the Dobbins Conservatory of Theatre and Dance on the River Campus of Southeast Missouri State University from June 14-19.

All appropriate COVID safety protocols will be followed.

For more information, including a schedule of events, play synopses and guest biographies, you may visit semo.edu/theatreanddance/lanfordwilson.

KRCU Public Radio host, Isabel Nauman, spoke with two of Southeast Missouri State University's professors who are organizing the event, and two of the playwrights whose works were selected for readings at the Lanford Wilson, New American Play Festival.

Isabel Nauman:

This is KRCU Public Radio's “Going Public”. I'm Isabel Nauman. Today we're talking with Dr. Kenn Stilson, the chair of the Dobbins Conservatory of Theatre and Dance and Kitt Lavoie, Assistant Professor of Theatre at the Conservatory, as well as the Artistic Director of the Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival. Later, we'll hear from Rachel Graf Evans and Kevin Renn-- two writers who have scripts that were selected to be in the festival. Kitt-- How about you start this off by telling us a little bit about the festival?

Kitt Lavoie:

The Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival is a one of a kind festival in the United States in that it's focused specifically on identifying and supporting new plays that specifically fit the needs of a university theatre department, meaning plays that have reasonably large cast that have either entirely or very nearly entirely characters that are all between the ages of 15 and 25. And that have strong roles for women, which is something that's very much lacking in the current canon, and that they generally tend to be at theater program. So, we are really trying to add to the canon of work that's available out there for university theater programs to produce. And, so the festival is going to take the form of staged readings of five plays that we identified from over 750 that were submitted from all over the country. And we will have staged readings of those that the public is welcome to come to, we'll have a discussion which the public is welcome to participate in, with the play right after their readings. And at the end of the week, we're going to select one of the plays which will both receive its world premiere as a full production in our coming season next year at the Conservatory, and also will be considered for publication by Concord Theatricals, which is the biggest theatrical publisher in the world. And so hopefully, they will then go on to after we premiere it, to be done at many other universities around the country. In addition to that, the festival also includes a number of workshops and seminars that are focused on early career people, primarily to learn about playwriting, and how the new play development process works. And, so both some members of the faculty at the Conservatory we'll be doing workshops, but also all of the full length playwrights who are coming to do to present their work will do a workshop and also we have several really top flight new play development professionals from around the country who will be coming from places like Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and Actors Theatre of Louisville to come and present workshops. Ken, do you want to add to that?

Dr. Kenn Stilson:

We're just very, very excited about this new venture. We're always in Dobbins Conservatory trying to expand upon what has been working for us in the past, and over the past 20 years, we have really built the conservatory into a very formidable professional training program. And when we brought Kitt on board a couple of years ago, one of the very first things that we talked about was the idea of developing some sort of festival like this. And so for us, this is just the next logical step for us as we continue to build the Conservatory’s reputation, both regionally and nationally, and makes us a better training program. Because so many of our students, whenever they leave the University, they're going to be working on new scripts, and this is whether they're in TV, film, or on in live theater. So often they're going to be working on original scripts. And this is going to be a rare opportunity, that kind of program that we are that they can practice that skill, the development of new scripts, not just the writing of the new scripts, but as actors as your people backstage, who are who are in the production team who are also a very vital part of the development process. This is going to be part of their regular training now in our program.

Isabel Nauman:

I know a huge part of the mission of this festival is to create an opportunity for students to work on and be exposed to new plays. So, could you explain why that's such an integral part of the students training?

Kitt Lavoie:

Before I came here to Southeast I ran a new play development company in New York City for about 20 years and also was very involved in being a new play dramaturge-- just like an advisor to new plays on Broadway and at Lincoln Center and played all over the world and I'm also a playwright myself, but one of the things that I found through that work is that there really are specific skills to working on a new play and to working on a new play in development, that schools don't teach people. So, we want to be able to teach the students what those skills are that are specific to working on new work. Because usually what people don't realize when they go to see a play, and they go see a new brand new play on Broadway or some someplace else. And they think, Oh, well, I guess the playwright kind of sat at a computer a few months ago and typed out a script, and now they're doing the play. Whereas in reality, usually, a play will take three to five years from finishing its first draft, to when it gets its first production. In between, it's got workshop productions, which are basically like stagings of the show, but without a set and things like that, to let them try out how it works up on its feet. And also, a bunch of readings similar to what we're going to be doing here, where it's the opportunity for the playwright, to hear the play out loud, and get feedback on it from different people. But those original casts that people see when they go do finally see it in the final version, very frequently, those casts were part of that development process. And so really, what we want to be able to do is train our students so that a, they can be in those readings and workshops, which even though they're not seen by the public, as much are paying work. And then also, hopefully, will end up in those original productions of shows.

Dr. Kenn Stilson:

There are lots of examples of plays that were developed, let's say out of the Yale School of Drama, and they were developed there, and they ended up taking them to New York or Broadway. And very often the actors, who were student actors at the time will end up in those casts. So, the idea that our students are going to be involved in the development, and then they will, it's possible that they will be then considered for professional production, once the scripts move on to that to that level, and is very famously at the development of Hamilton very famously took about eight years of development. And he went through the same process as this and then it goes to the stage readings, then they go through sing-throughs. And then they did various smaller productions, which then, finally led to eight years later-- the production that we now know of. But all plays-- whether they are straight plays, meaning non-musicals, or whether they are musicals, they go through this process.

Isabel Nauman:

What other kinds of opportunities will this bring for students and recent graduates of the Conservatory?

Kitt Lavoie:

In addition to learning about how to work on new work, we also are bringing in some pretty heavy-hitter professionals who are going to be working with the students on these readings and who are going to be teaching workshops at the festival. And so, it really will be a great opportunity for the students to make connections with some people who are really significant characters in this world of new plays, [that are] out there.

Dr. Kenn Stilson:

It's very important for us to not just be working professionals, the faculty and staff who are with Dobbins Conservatory, but to bring in to our Conservatory, outside professionals. For example, several years ago, we brought in a guest director to direct our production of A Streetcar Named Desire. And Jay Wade was the lead, he played Stanley Kowalski in that particular production and the director, herself was connected with another very famous director in Chicago. And that director came to see our production. And they went on to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where they produced a really dynamic, newer script called Pipeline. And the director by request, invited Jay to audition for that and he was cast in that professional equity production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which is one of the preeminent regional theatre festivals in the country. So that was a direct result of him working with outside guest artists that we bring to campus, to work with our students.

Isabel Nauman:

Is there any play in particular, that you are most excited to see worked on over the course of the week?

Dr. Kenn Stilson:

I've read all of the five finalists scripts, and they're all really terrific. And there's a big difference between reading a play in your own head you know, as I'm laying there quietly at night, and hearing it. Plays are intended to be heard and seen. They're not intended to be read. So for that reason, the play that I think that I have the closest attachment to now, could totally change whenever we hear these things read out loud, and you hear actor interpretations and you hear The interaction between characters and all, they become something that maybe didn't really resonate with you, as you were reading it, all of a sudden it comes to life. So, what is my personal favorite one right now could totally change the week of the festival-- which is the whole point of it.

Isabel Nauman:

We've talked a lot about how this festival will impact the students and the faculty that's involved. But it's also a great opportunity for the community to see parts of the theatrical process that aren't often seen by the public as well as get a chance to participate themselves.

Kitt Lavoie:

A lot of what we're going to be doing during this week, and the things that we are going to be talking about during the non-performance sessions this week, are things that usually happen behind closed doors, and that theater lovers get the end result of but they very rarely get to not only listen in to that conversation, but also in this case, to be part of that conversation. And to have that opportunity to let people who love Theatre in Cape to be able to come and listen to the plays, read and talk with the playwrights after them, and hear really top-flight new play professionals talk about how plays get made. And then, in the case of one of them to be able to come hear the play read, be part of the discussion about that play, and then come back a few months from now and be able to see a fully-staged version of that play, where I can say for pretty certain, this script will have changed, to some degree, because of that discussion, that they were a part of. And I'm really excited. You know, that's, that's a world I spent a whole lot of my career before I came here in. And I'm so excited to bring both our students and the community and cape into those rooms, too.

Dr. Kenn Stilson:

We do want people to know that we really want the general public to be part of the workshops, the Q & A sessions, the talkback sessions, as well as the readings because again, that's a very important part of the process. But also, audiences will have a great time, and it is at no-cost because this is its inaugural year. And we're establishing this festival this year and we are absolutely committed to continuing the work of new play development. And like I said, has changed the entire mission of our program. Of course, we do musicals, and we do classic plays and popular plays that are already out there and published, and that's not going to change.  But adopting this new mission, is to also produce new works. That's really exciting. And that's something that's going to make us even more unique than we already are.

An Interview With Two Playwrights In The Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival

Isabel Nauman:

This is KRCU Public Radio's Going Public. I'm Isabel Nauman. First, we're going to be talking with Rachel Graf Evans, who wrote the play, “Randi & Roxanne”. Then, we will speak to Kevin Renn, who wrote the play, “Jungle Juice”.

Playwright, Rachel Graf Evans:

My name is Rachel Graf Evans, and I'm the playwright of “Randi and Roxanne”.

Isabel Nauman:

Can you give me a short synopsis of your play?

Rachel Graf Evans:

Yeah. Miranda Beaudelaire, who goes by Randi, is a junior year transfer and secret poet, who has a major inconvenience. She's totally in love with her best friend Roxanne and can't seem to stop writing sappy poetry about it. So, when Kristie, the new star of the softball team asked Randi for help on how to woo Roxanne, what she's supposed to do? Tell the truth. It’s a queer romantic comedy about secrets, sonnets, and softball.

Isabel Nauman:

Could you tell me a little bit about what your writing process was like?

Rachel Graf Evans:

Sure. This initial idea has started as an exercise in one of my graduate programs. I've just completed one of two Graduate Writing programs in dramatic writing. And then when that assignment was over, I was still thinking about opportunities for younger actors, especially young women actors. I grew up being trained as an actor, and moved into playwriting more as a professional producer because of wanting to write more roles for women, especially ones that were intelligent. And the time, all of my friends were pursuing acting.

Isabel Nauman:

Is there anything specific that you're looking to change or explore throughout the staged readings?

Rachel Graf Evans:

Oh, I'm so excited to hear it in person. It's such a delightful thing. I'm really I'm not going in expecting to change anything. Because I come from a musical theater training background, I'm really interested in this play and whether it will remain a play with the relationship between the poetry in a spoken text and the casual contemporary dialogue. I'll be listening for that, to see sort of how those interact stylistically. And this time, I get to hear it.

Isabel Nauman:

Have you previously done any staged readings or workshops on this play?

Rachel Graf Evans:

Yes. So, this play received a virtual lab reading at the Hollins University Playwrights Lab where I'm also an MFA candidate and playwriting. Last summer, it was part of the lab reading series, fully through zoom, which is a very interesting, fun experience, also, with technical complications and things like that. It'll be a completely different medium-- essentially, to hear it in person, to see it in person this time. So, I'm very excited about that sort of next iteration of how it might come to life.

Isabel Nauman:

Why do you feel like it's important for students to be working on new materials?

Rachel Graf Evans:

Oh, what a great question. I think that new work, acting training, working on new work as an actor is some of the best training that one can have, because there is nothing to do but make a strong choice, that there is not a precedent about how the character has been played before; that the tools that you have before you are your own instincts, the wacky individual-self that you bring to the table, and making really strong choices. Because, even if the playwright changes something, that's because the choices that the actor made, were so strong and made it so clear to the playwright to shift the script, not because the actor made the wrong choices, but instead, to have the playwright be that much clearer about how to communicate in the text, what it is that they want. And, so all choices are good choices, especially if they're strong. That tentative is a much harder thing to work with, because the playwright isn't quite sure if the script is communicating, the character and the circumstance and the tone. You’ve got to bring your brain and your whole self to this. From my Conservatory training, there was a lot more focus on being neutral and, being impressionable or being directable and arriving as a blank slate in order to be directed, or to otherwise be melded into the character. And, so by working on new work, there's a lot of initiative and agency given to the actors, and I as a playwright, I invite that from the actors, because playwriting is a lonely sport. And so, I'm in the theater, as a team player. So I just love it when people make things funnier, and find things within the script that I had not ever heard. Because everyone is bringing themselves and their ideas to each of the characters in this really new, brand new, exciting way.

Playwright, Kevin Renn:

My name is Kevin Renn, and I wrote the play “Jungle Juice”, that's going to be in the Lanford Wilson, New American Play Festival. “Jungle Juice” is about a group of friends, the night before they graduate college. And they're celebrating with one final get-together; one final party. And there's kind of some unfinished business that they have yet to deal with--kind of a secret looming over their group of friends. And it's about a group of friends who have yet to deal with the trauma in their life, and dealing with past issues that have been brought up.

Isabel Nauman:

What was your writing process like?

Kevin Renn:

I started this play-- writing it back in 2015. And I wrote this play basically kind of like an homage my friends, but it was a play that kind of taught me how to write at that moment. My life, as I realized-- I wanted to be a writer. So, I kind of was, you know, there's that old saying, of write with who you know. So it's kind of using inspiration for my friends around me in my life experiences, from the people my life around me at that time, and the friendships I was dealing with, and the kind of growing element of being a young-adult in college; kind of growth from those friendships and the kind of ending a friendship, to how you move on from friends in your past life, and incoming friends into your new life, as you grow to become a bigger person after college.

Isabel Nauman:

Could you speak to why it's so important for students to be working on new works?

Kevin Renn:

Oh, I think students definitely need to be working on new work-- that's so important, because they need to learn the skills necessary of thinking fast, working on their feet, and being able to make strong choices, because it gives them real-world experience. I think a lot of collegiate institutions kind of you know, obviously teach the standards of rehearsals and learning a script and blocking and you know, rehearsing again. That just kind of is, what they're working on. I already published a play. Compared to working on a new play, is a completely different process. There are many different changes that come. I mean, you could start with one script and by opening night, have a completely new script in your hand. So I think it's very important because it's teaching skills early on, that will help them move forward in their career, later on in life.

Isabel Nauman:

How did you find out that your play was selected to be in this festival?

Kevin Renn:

I found out through an e-mail from Kitt. He had e-mailed me telling me that I was a finalist for the festival and that I would have to go to like, obviously an interview process-- and just discussing with him and then I would later find out that I was included in a pitch for the festival. It's funny. I told him a story about how, you know, being a young early writer, you're always submitting your work to festivals and readings and stuff. So originally, when I got the e-mail, I was telling my roommates I was like, ‘Oh, here we go. Another rejection letter’. This one says, Oh, I look like I'm finally being considered for something. I was like, ‘Okay, never-mind’. Great.’ So, it came as a shock and surprise. I was in New York City. But, I'm very, very excited to get started and very excited to meet everyone in Cape Girardeau.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Isabel is a first year student at the Jeanine Larson Dobbins Conservatory of Theatre and Dance at Southeast Missouri State University. While pursuing her BFA in musical theatre, she also wishes to expand her horizons by working with the departments of design and tech as well as mass communications. Isabel joined the KRCU team as a Morning Edition host in February of 2019 and, despite the early mornings, has loved all it has to offer. She will be temporarily departing Morning Edition this summer for an internship in her hometown of St. Louis at the Stray Dog Theatre, but is looking forward to returning again in the fall. Isabel has been a big time NPR listener for as long as she can remember, and says she’s excited to have the opportunity to work for her “go-to source for news and entertainment.”
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