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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival

For those of you who aren’t aware of this organization, here are a couple of paragraphs from their website:

Started in 1969 by Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center's founding chairman, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) is a national theater program involving 18,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide which has served as a catalyst in improving the quality of college theater in the United States. The KCACTF has grown into a network of more than 600 academic institutions throughout the country, where theater departments and student artists showcase their work and receive outside assessment by KCACTF respondents.

In January and February of each year, regional festivals showcase the finest of each region's entered productions and offer a variety of activities, including workshops, symposia, and regional-level award programs. Regional festival productions are judged by a panel of three judges selected by the Kennedy Center and the KCACTF national committee. These judges in consultation with the Artistic Director select four to six of the best and most diverse regional festival productions to be showcased in the spring at the annual noncompetitive national festival at the Kennedy Center, all expenses paid.

For the second year, I was asked to participate in a regional festival by the head of Region I - Kelly Morgan. Last year’s festival featured an unrehearsed reading of my play ANOTHER VERMEER, starring the eternally remarkable Austin Pendleton. Kelly directed Austin in the play at the Abingdon Theatre last spring. He’s also directing one of my new plays (SACCO-VANZETTI) VINCE, AL & TEDDY, which is having a similar (though Pendleton-free) reading.

The festival took place in and around Fitchburg, MA (Jan. 27th – Feb. 1st). I had four major jobs:

1. To teach a playwrights workshop
2. To direct a student-written, student-acted 10-Minute Play
3. To “respond” to two productions.
4. To witness an unrehearsed, public reading of the above (SACCO-VANZETTI)

What a magnificent time I had. And what spectacular people I met. I’ll only mention two of the legion students and teachers who had an impact on me.

I’ve already noted the first, Kelly. He did a spectacular job in his last year as regional chair. The collective love that was showered on him was earned by his boundless energy and his prodigious talent.

The second is Jillian Durkee. A sophomore at Middlebury College, she wrote the 10-Minute Play that I directed. To our delight, BOB’S CAR was one of two plays (of six) that continue onto the national competition. Jillian was a game and enthusiastic collaborator. She solved problems and re-wrote with skill and zeal. It’s my pleasure to be a footnote in what I expect to be phenomenal career. Despite my hatred for that Middlebury God Robert Frost (and I wish the road not taken were a long one off a short pier), I love Jillian.

My workshop went well. Great connecting with the students.

I “responded” to two productions. This involves seeing the show, analyzing and evaluating the various production elements and sharing them with the full cast and production team the next day.

To me: critical reaction is always essentially visceral – a positive or negative grunt. Afterwards, you string the words to describe or justify your reaction. I guess that there are probably almost as many styles of responding as there are respondents. I think I was benign.

The renowned teacher/director Milton Katselas said:"When I teach, my job is to bring out whatever is possible. It's not my job to push the ejector seat on somebody's dreams." I operated in a similar manner.

The reading of my play (SACCO-VANZETTI) VINCE, AL & TEDDY went terrifically. I’ve had readings done at Theatricum Botanicum (Ellen Geer’s wonderful theatre in Topanga) and at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Each time has encouraged and informed serious rewriting. Hey, I’d be an idiot not to pay attention to what I hear and what others think.

Without rehearsal (other than informally), the actors were uniformly excellent. They let me and the audience hear the piece.

It would be premature to discuss the practical results of this reading. Still; the reaction of a variety of theatre, grant-giving, private, and academic individuals encourages me to think that the piece has huge potential.

The audience was touched by the piece. The actors were ecstatic. And Kelly was elated. Me? Guardedly optimistic.

The moments that will stay longest, I think, were when I connected with the students; when I was able to encourage the truly talented. Also among the most-memorable (and the last person I’ll mention) is Kelly’s 4 year-old daughter, Maia.

I’d known and, of course, adored her since I met her during our ANOTHER VERMEER run at the Abingdon. This delightful young lady and I got along very well. Kids just want you to pay attention to them and to realize that their concerns are very real and meaningful to them.

She insisted on addressing me as “handsome.” Of course, I immediately inquired if she had vision problems. Then, I suggested to Kelly that maybe through applied education her aesthetic judgment could be righted. My wife, Donna, isn’t jealous at all – dammit!

I’m just happy to participate in the lives of the young – the future. I can share what I’ve learned, what I suspect, what I think. I can use my many mistakes as cautionary tales. And next year, I’ll have another chance to do so. I’ve already been asked by the new chair to attend next year’s festival.

This is just the surface of what was a rich, thick, packed, exhausting week. The truth and joy of the time was in the many interactions with the vivid, complex, and colorful personalities that crowded the halls, theatres, and classes. Sign me up for another, baby!

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