Iowa New Play Festival performances to reflect imagination of UI student playwrights


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Turning words on a page into onstage worlds is no easy feat for theater troupes, especially at the Iowa New Play Festival. As one of the premier college-theater events in the nation, more than a dozen scripts will come to life for the first time through readings and performances during the University of Iowa Theater Department’s seven-day festival.

But before a play can be designed, cast, and presented to audiences, it must first come to life in the mind of a playwright. Drawing on personal tragedies, curiosities, and encounters, the five Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop students whose work will be produced onstage between May 5 and 11 have their own motivations for putting pen to paper.

Emily Dendinger, For the Falls

Though the first production of the New Play Festival has a darkly comedic tone, playwright Emily Dendinger’s For the Falls, premièring May 5, was influenced by a strictly dark event—the death of a close friend.

“It was the first big death my group of friends and I have had to deal with,” said Dendinger, a second-year Playwrights’ Workshop student. “In a lot of ways, the play is autobiographical. It asks, what do we owe to the dead and what do we owe to ourselves?”

For the Falls takes place in 1962, following seven friends, relatives, and strangers who gather in a house above a waterfall to discuss the mysterious death of a composer.

“I write a lot of plays based on major events, but it’s the after-after party I focus on,” Dendinger said. “It’s after the funeral, when everyone’s been together all day and they’re tired and they’re drinking and talking.”

An aspiring playwright and television screenwriter, Dendinger said she enjoys theater that inspires conversation, and she sees the New Play Festival as an opportunity to bring her work to the next level.

“The whole world that was in my head someone is trying to replicate, which is mind-boggling,” she said. “It’s a fully realized production. I don’t think this is the end of this play’s life.”

Katharine Sherman, half sick of shadows

It’s a paradigm in fiction writing that nothing is original — all work is based on something written before. Rather than try to prove this theory wrong, Katharine Sherman embraces it, searching for creative ways to retell classic tales.

“It’s exciting to me the kind of conversation you can have with historical times just by telling the same story in different ways,” she said.

Sherman’s half sick of shadows, which will open May 6, was inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott,” in which a trapped woman weaves stories — or, as Sherman calls them, “reveries” — based on glimpses of the outside world. For Sherman’s play, these stories derive from other Tennyson poems.

“It was about looking at the poems and looking at what struck me,” Sherman said. “What I thought was beautiful, weird, or delightful, or a particular image or tone, and spinning that into a little scene.”

Sherman said the dream-like story is continually adapting to its new stage environment.

“It’s always surprising and exciting seeing what happens in the rehearsal room,” said Sherman, who will graduate from the UI this spring. “I appreciate the changes and the life the rehearsal process has given it.”

Bonnie Metzgar, You Lost Me

Bonnie Metzgar first attended the Iowa New Play Festival in 1988 — now, it will be the venue for her graduate thesis production You Lost Me, premièring on May 8.

“The program at Iowa is very open and inclusive to whatever a playwright is pursuing,” said Metzgar, who runs the About Face theater company in Chicago. “I first experienced the New Play Festival 25 years ago, and finally having a production in it has been a great experience.”

Like Metzgar’s history in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, You Lost Me breaches time to present snippets of stories from characters vacationing on an island in Newfoundland that was the site of a famous 1824 shipwreck.

“I’m really interested in surviving,” Metzgar said. “What it means to survive, and this idea of the ocean as a place that holds a lot of memory of things that … are whispers of what they once were.”

Metzgar said she and her cast used the metaphor of the ocean to figure out how the different story “fragments” interact onstage.

“I really wanted the structure of the play to feel like tides to coming in and out,” she said. “We really used New Play Festival as a way to get inside how these driftwood pieces of a play land on the sand together.”

Deborah Yarchun, The Aleph Complex

When Borders bookstores closed their doors in 2011 after the rise of e-books, Deborah Yarchun saw in it more than an economic casualty.

"The closing of Borders signaled for me a turning point in our history," said The Aleph Complex writer. "It marked a further movement towards a computer-techno-dominated world where not only can we read works of literature on our Kindles, if one wanted, they could opt to never leave their apartment."

Premiering on May 9, The Aleph Complex explores this possibility through a homebound mother and her daughter who struggle with anxiety, and the last Borders employee on earth.

Described by Yarchun as "a fable woven from our times," the comedic tale is also heavy on theatricality, featuring a shadow puppet that comes to life, a sweater that unravels infinitely, and a thought expressed in 100 sounds.

"The most exciting part of the process has been seeing stage directions that I thought may be impossible not only being realized, but being done beautifully," Yarchun said.

Following her final year as a UI student, Yarchun plans to move to Indianapolis to continue to develop her work, starting with The Aleph Complex.

"I definitely will continue writing plays," she said. "I don't know if it's possible to stop."

Bella Poynton, The Aurora Project

Cyborgs, cryogenic freezing, space travel—for playwright Bella Poynton, these archetypes of science fiction should not be limited to H.G. Wells novels and Ridley Scott films.

"I know science fiction is generally not done on stage, but it's kind of my thing," Poynton said. "I kind of have this dream of doing more of it in theater—it's my aesthetic as an artist and a playwright."

Poynton's The Aurora Project premieres May 11, and chronicles the millennia-long romance between a genetically-modified human and the gravely-ill and frozen Nora as they search for a cure across time and space.

"[The New Play Festival] is fantastic, fun, and incredibly rewarding," said Poynton, a Buffalo, N.Y. native. "That's why we become playwrights—we have these ideas in our head we want to see realized, and the more experience you can have working with actors and designers and talking about your vision and matching it up with theirs, the more it develops."

Poynton hopes to return to New York after graduate school to try TV screenwriting, while continuing to write for and act on stage.

"It's not the end of the road," she said. "It's the beginning of something larger."

What: Iowa New Play Festival 2013
When: May 5-11
Where: UI Theatre Building
Admission: Free for UI students, $5 for general public

Emily Dendinger, For the Falls
5:30 and 9 p.m., May 5

Katharine Sherman, half sick of shadows
5:30 and 9 p.m., May 6

Bonnie Metzgar, You Lost Me
5:30 and 9 p.m., May 8

Deborah Yarchun, The Aleph Complex
5:30 and 9 p.m., May 9

Bella Poynton, The Aurora Project
5:30 and 9 p.m., May 11

>>For a full schedule of festival events, go to arts.uiowa.edu/iowa-new-play-festival

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