Cameron Benoit and Taylor Abels in A Starfish’s World.
New Voices Young Playwrights Festival
Various writers & directors
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved
The final bow of the season at Actors Theatre of Louisville is not the close of the Humana Festival, but a smaller, lower profile evening of shorts called the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. The plays embraced Realism, Absurdism, parody, rap, extended monologue, teen experience and historical and contemporary issues: an eclectic mix of genre and subject from writers from several area high schools.
The highlight of the program for me was A Starfish’s World by Brooke Morrison. And the immediate buzz from the audience that followed this play at the performance I attended suggests that the student audience also relished this quirky piece. Morrison’s writing is deftly tongue in cheek as Angie and Bruce explore the existential questions of the starfishes’ world in a series of short scenes. The playwright juxtaposes the starfishes’ static existence with short scenes of a high stakes bomb disposal scenario, which goes badly for Janet and Red, the technicians charged with this mission. These scenes are less polished than those with the starfishes – it feels like Morrison can’t quite decide if this is a ‘real’ situation or a commentary on an action movie scenario. I hope that Morrison will return to this script for some rewrites so that both, apparently unconnected, worlds can be fully realized.
Three of the short plays take on some tough subjects; two seem to draw from the playwrights’ experiences and one is drawn from research for a school class. This latter piece, Sick by Huy Vo, takes on the way homosexuals were treated during the 1950’s. A topic with resonance today (I saw it the day before the Supreme Court case about gay marriage), Vo crams a lot into the ten minute play format with eight characters, multiple locations and flashbacks. It is important to remember from where we came from as civil rights issues advance in society and in our courts, and in this case we are reminded that it was once medically acceptable to institutionalize gay men and submit them to drug regimens and lobotomies against their will. Nonetheless, this is a subject that either needs to be extended into a longer script format (which has the potential to be really powerful), or Vo should consider focusing on fewer of the aspects he’s included – exploring those more fully, so that the audience comes away with a deeper understanding of those issues.
The Rearview Mirror, written by Kristen Bell, takes the ten-minute play in a completely different direction: an extended monologue. Bell writes fluently, and in painful detail, about how a ‘perfect’ family is fundamentally changed when the new baby is diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. Girl, the older sister, takes us through the family’s adjustments to their new life, learning to love the Autistic brother, until the day Girl is driving with Thomas in the car and there is a fatal accident. It would be worthwhile for Bell to take a look at how she sets up this extended reflection of this one horrific moment in Girl’s life – how obvious should it be, from the beginning (as it was in this staging), that the brother is dead? And if this is important to convey, what does this mean for how Girl tells her story, why she does so, and the outcome of having told the story.
Annie Stone’s Don’t Leave Me Here, Okay, adds the convention of the alter ego to her extended duologue, as the young woman Grace’s self-confidence is constantly undermined by Thing. Stone takes on the all-too-real possibility of date rape and its aftermath. The playwright nails the voice-within-the-head when someone is insecure. Within the first few minutes she confidently spools out how Grace and Dan get together. That’s when the script takes a dark turn and we realize that this apparently nice guy has raped Grace. The balance of the play details the grim reality that it is challenging for a rape victim to make her case, and that on a campus she still has to encounter the perpetrator. In an effective shift of her convention, Bell has Thing take Grace’s place during the rape scene, with Grace becoming the observer/narrator of her experience. The intent silence of the audience during this piece attests to its power and unfortunate resonance for students.
The program also offered lighter moments interspersed with the heavier pieces. The evening began with Kallen Sebastian’s The Flingin’ Wisbees, which takes a humorous look at the rivalries between sports teams at the high school level. Sebastian makes her point by inventing a multi-sport competition in which completely disparate and zany sports compete against each other. Lauren Titus’ Street Smarts, which bookended the program, is set within a high school environment as well; this time the ‘Rhythm and Poetry’ (RAP) high school, in which the two candidates for Valedictorian face off in a Rap competition. Typical rivalries are mitigated when Brenna, daughter to the principal, realizes that Jamal is a scholarship student and needs this honor to help him get to college. A brief appearance of Snoop Dogg and the introduction of the magic mic assure that there will be a happy ending.
Turning to literary references to ensure that happy outcomes can be assured, A Haunting in the East Wing, by Katie Henning conflates Halloween, a teenage crush, a sympathetic librarian, and a young woman steeped in many genres of literature. Avery, too embarrassed to say anything articulate to the young man to whom she’s attracted, falls asleep in the library during Halloween preparations and is visited by Emily Brontë and Dorothy Parker. A delicious combination of literary exemplars! After some acerbic and practical advice, Avery wakes up and in a bow perhaps more to Austen than to Brontë, in the final moment of the piece speaks up to her crush and we can anticipate a happy ending.
Practically placed following the intermission, Benjamin Collin’s The Torpedo Room, is a spot on parody of the Star Trek franchise. Collins is clearly a fan, and skewers many of the tropes of the series: cameo roles being dispensable, cheap special effects, techno-babble, the (non) Vulcan salute, and more. This is a delightful homage to a genre that the playwright loves well enough that he can have tremendous fun poking fun at it.
As always the Apprentice/Intern Company, together with staff and community directors, dramaturges and designers, serve these young playwrights well. This opportunity to receive a fully staged production of a ten-minute script is a huge gift to early playwrights, as staged readings are much more likely to be the norm if they continue their playwriting.
New Voices Young Playwrights Festival
April 27-28, 2015
Actors Theatre of Louisvill
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.