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ATL New Voices Young Playwrights Festival

Review by Kathi Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Kathi Ellis. All rights reserved.

April always brings the two performances of this year’s New Voices Young Playwrights Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. This year’s nine playwrights are currently enrolled at Assumption, Atherton, Ballard, Fairdale, DuPont Manual, Louisville Male, and YPAS high schools. Their scripts were selected from almost 600 submissions to the annual competition. The plays are fully staged in ATL’s Bingham Theatre and feature members of the current year’s apprentice company, with many interns also participating in the production and administrative aspects of the Festival.

As with other new play festivals in the area this season, explorations of fantasy and science fiction people this year’s New Voices offering, Maybe that is the zeitgeist of new playwriting locally; these themes certainly reflect those explorations in popular culture. Several of the scripts felt like they were grounded in books and movies that are current, with the writers teasing out existing themes and ideas rather than covering new ground.

One of the most sophisticated scripts was Travis Ryan’s Greg’s New Phone. The dialogue and characterization were crisp and clever, allowing both teens and adults in the audience to enjoy and identify with the trials of setting up a new phone as Greg and iPhone tussle over the early steps in personalizing the phone. The humor was sharpened by Greg’s advanced age – though the audience’s responses reflected that the ‘smartness’ of a phone might certainly trip up owners of any age.

The playbill noted that ATL is now partnering with VSA Kennedy Center to teach Playwriting Discovery, a program that lifts up issues of disability. Both Pieces, by Hannah Rose Marks, and Space-Girl by Emma Morris, addressed issues that inhabit this sphere. In Pieces Ms. Marks is exploring the world of a young woman living with schizophrenia. Her character is only identified as ‘Girl’, with other personalities numbered 1 through 6 – the nomenclature suggesting the isolation and alienation of this condition. The cacophony of the multiple voices made it difficult, at times, to follow the script, and yet also emphasized the chaos inherent in this condition. Space-Girl etches out a series of encounters between Stella, who is living within the Autism spectrum, and Amelie. Ms. Morris delicately delineates how these two young women break through the barriers surrounding this condition.

Because I Knew You by Annie Stone is an appealing encounter between two sisters. The dialogue in this piece flowed realistically between Alana and Yvie, at times awkward, at times confrontational, at times demonstrating the comfortableness of two people who’ve known each other their whole lives. It felt like we were listening in on an actual conversation between two teens. The sequence in which the complicating factor of losing a parent to cancer was introduced became a little didactic, but with some deft editing this part of their conversation could be brought into the otherwise believable world of the two sisters.

The evening began with the tongue-in-cheek Can We Just Kill the Bad Guy Already? by Hallinda Williams. In the vein of Princess Bride and turn of the century super-hero movies in which the ‘super’ has been downsized, this piece deconstructs the myths of warrior and sorcerer. While well received by the audience, this script doesn’t know how to end; after the Elf Terren and the Sorcerer discover they get on, the energy of the story rapidly dissipates. Ms. Williams might also consider if the story could be as successful in one scene as in two.  The other super-hero of the evening is Muscle Man Clark in Nakome Ehrhart’s Misfortune. His powers, or his assessment of his powers, are repeatedly called into question, and the denouement features his younger brother becoming his nemesis, allowing the question as to whether Tony has been creating the conditions for MM’s successes all along.

Piece by Piece, by Saide Martinez, considers the old trope of ‘the grass is always greener’.  Set in either a potentially near future or a past of legend, this world is divided by a wall with characters on both the obviously more idyllic side and those on the presumably dystopian side wanting to find out what is on the opposite side. An interesting premise, this script bears more development; the relationship between the two girls, Ashley and Cadie, was not entirely evident (in part because the dialogue was rushed and unclear the night I saw it), and after their fear about the other side, the lack of conflict about joining the stranger on that other side was an easy and rushed end to the play. The monologues of Reed, the character on the other side, could also be developed more; clearly a necessary device to uncover his thoughts, they are stilted and there is no apparent reason for him to be thinking out loud. Mark McDaniel’s Cabbage Crazed is a zany romp through a children’s competition for best cabbage at a county fair. All of the characters are heightened, and come with a child’s-eye view of what is right or fair as well as the zany logic of a child wanting their own way. With a nod to Audrey II, the cabbage has its own ideas too.

Madisen Zirnheld’s What Not to Wed was the high-octane end to the evening. Within the loose framework of a group meeting, we are introduced to the post-movie realities of six of Disney’s heroines – or princesses, as a less than fairy-tale Cinderella demands to be called. Cleverly linking a key fact or reality of the movie characters to contemporary and current women’s issues, Ms. Zirnheld briskly whisks us through rejection, hunger, necrophilia, fashion, and more, as each heroine dishes on the unsatisfactory nature of her prince, calling into hilarious question the ‘happily every after’ assumptions embedded in these movies’ endings.

The performance I attended was a full house, and the support for the young playwrights and the enthusiasm engendered by the productions was palpable throughout the audience. The opportunity for these writers to receive a fully-staged and professional production of their short plays is a gift for which many playwrights, regardless of age or experience, would be truly grateful.

The deadline for next year’s New Voices Ten Minute Play Contest is October 31, 2014.

ATL New Voices Young Playwrights Festival

April 21 & 22, 2014

Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
502- 584-1205