New Play Festival explores air disasters, Bigfoot, and much more

BY GRACE HAERR | APRIL 30, 2015 3:30 PM

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New Play Festival is an annual week-long festival that highlights new work written by undergraduate and MFA playwrights. The festival has four total main stage productions and Ryan Oliveira is the playwright of one — Below the Pacific. Oliveira said the production was inspired by the disappearance of Malaysia airlines flight 370 over the Indian Ocean earlier this year. The production premieres Friday at 5:30 p.m. and will have its second showing at 9 p.m.that same day in Thayer Theater in the Theater Building. Listen to hear Oliveira provide insight into his production and the performance space the cast will be using.

Multimedia compiled by Grace Haerr and edited by Lily Abromeit

For the University of Iowa New Play Festival, the largest event of its kind in the US, graduate students working towards their MFAs in theater are given five weeks to create, collaborate, rehearse, rewrite, and polish their plays to perfection.

The life of the Iowa New Play Festival has reached its "over the hill" marker with readings and new works having been produced for more than 40 years.

New Play Festival is a six day long event starting on May 6, including four main stage productions — Faculty Portrait, Silo Tree, TRICH, and Below the Pacific — performed twice each at 5:30 and 9 p.m. on their respective days. Readings will also be hosted each day at 2 p.m., including the plays Hunting BigFoot, Right, Binary Star, Boom Boom Town, Meloman (a music lover), and Cut & Run.

“The beauty of this festival is that there is still going to be development after these performances are displayed over the week,” said Ryan Oliveira, playwright of Below the Pacific.

Popular readings from New Play become main stage productions for the following year’s festival, and some of the more successful productions have risen to Broadway.

“It’s so exhilarating and so exhausting to go through this whole process," Oliveira said. "As a playwright you get it from the designers, the director, the actors, the stage designer, the dramaturge, and its never enough time to get something completely off its feet."

These challenges, Oliveira said, are necessary in the world of drama.

“Theater shouldn’t be safe, theater should be asking the tough questions," he said. "I like to think of theater artists as magicians. I think we are here to conjure stories and weave stories together and make sense of the world in that way."

Play: Below the Pacific

Below the Pacific— which is, appropriately, set at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean — will be performed in the David Thayer Theater of the UI Theater Building Friday night, with seating on all four sides of the stage.

Playwright Oliveira said his production was inspired by the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappearing over the Indian Ocean in March 2014.

"For me, having these airplane disasters over the ocean, there are things that disappear and bodies that aren’t recovered," he said. "What does that mean for the people that live on after that, who have to search for them and who try to search for an answer? So in a weird way my play is a large metaphor for that.”

Oliveira said Below the Pacific is a "super ambitious" project, but suits his style.

“My kind of theater is the kind of theater that imagines more than itself," he said. "It’s the little kitty that thinks it’s a gigantic tiger and wants to grow up to be a gigantic tiger that strikes fear and awe in the hearts of people."

Marina Johnson, director of Below the Pacific, said she prefers to think of their new play as a baby.

“It’s not what’s best for me as the director, it’s what’s best for the baby," she said. "Everyone has to take care of the baby and we want the baby to still be alive so you can’t pull the baby in too many directions. The reading is always considered the birthing of the baby because it is the first time that it appears in the world.”

One of Oliveira's characters was given the Latin name Marina, both to honor his director and for the pertinence of its translation, "lady of the sea."

Johnson said the playwright-director pairing process this year worked in everyone’s favor.

“We find out about the four plays that have been selected for the main stage shows and then the playwrights sort of cast their votes so we don’t find out who they preference because there are four grad directors and there are four plays," she said. "This time all the directors and all the playwrights got their first choices."

For Oliveira and Johnson, this is their third year collaborating on a new production.

“Its really nice to have established how we work together in this really great collaboration which doesn’t get to happen all the time. It takes a while for you to speak the same language as your actors and the designers and the playwright, “ Johnson said.

Oliveira agreed.

“She and I sync," he said. "I’m the kind of playwright who likes collaborating. I have my own impulses of what to pull and what to cut and I always field it to her and in the room Marina has total control. She runs the ship and she runs this production."

Johnson’s directorial hand is flexible, Oliveira said, allowing his goals to reach their peak.

“It is my goal or duty as a playwright to make people empathize, to make people feel things, to make people open up, and I’m hoping this play accomplishes that,” Oliveira said. “Being able to tell a story and being able to engage with it is one of the most magical and meaningful feelings in my life.”

Reading: Hunting BigFoot

First time festival partners Theresa Giacopasi, a playwright, and Madison Colquette, will stage a reading of Hunting BigFoot 2 p.m. May 4 in the Theater Building's Cosmo Catalano Acting Studio.

Giacopasi’s fascination with the urban legend and its connection with U.S. culture led her to Bigfoot. 

“I just think that it’s such a weird American thing," she said. "I’m intrigued by the way our national identity has changed and what it means to be American, where it moved from this pioneer sort of Rough Rider cowboy/Wild West mentality to the sort of innovators and eggheads, and then finally today the keepers of our national stories are reality television stars and rich people.

"Looking at the legend of Bigfoot being passed down though those different types of Americans is what I was interested in doing I hope that I did it, we will find out,” Giacopasi said.

Even though Colquette will be directing Hunting BigFoot, she said she is a dramaturge at heart.

“A lot of it is listening to the play," she said. "I ask questions of the play and I ask questions of the playwright and I study how and why plays are written.”

After studying Giacopasi's script, Colquette said she fell in love with the story and decided to try her hand at directing.

“It’s different from writing a novel or writing a short story," Colquette said. "What she is writing is something that will have a life on the stage in a performance so there is a certain amount of lovely collaboration that goes with it. With actors and directors and designers and dramaturges in order to make what she has written come to life."

Giacopasi compared the production process to organizing a party, where the playwright is the host, the actors are the birthday girl, and the dramaturge is the liaison between the two.

"Say a writer is planning a party and is working with designers who bring themed cups and plates," she said. "…Without the party guests, i.e. the audience, it’s not a party, it’s just a bunch of decorations."

Though Hunting BigFoot is only in the reading stage, Giacopasi said the format leaves room for the listener's imagination to roam.

 “The audience doesn’t see the directors production vision — they don’t see the design that the director would’ve chosen ... It kind of invites the audience to create the production in their minds themselves so they get to kind of be the director in a way and I think in some ways that’s more engaging than being delivered a final project."


Iowa New Play Festival

When: May 4 - 9: readings at 2 p.m., main stage at 5:30 and 9 p.m., roundtable discussions at 11 a.m.
Where: UI Theater Building
Admission: $5 for main stage, readings free. All events are free to UI students.

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