Monday, June 25, 2012

Brand-New Plays Bring Something Fresh to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Yes, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival opens this week. You can see "Othello" tomorrow and "As You Like It" Wednesday if you are in the mood for Special Preview Nights and their tempting two-for-one option. But there is something else, something new and shiny and very exciting, happening at the Festival this year.

We generally associate the Illinois Shakespeare Festival with older plays. Older, as in Elizabethan, of course, with the occasional Restoration comedy or even a little Cavalier fun or the occasional Shakespeare parody tossed into the mix to keep things lively. But last year, the Festival launched something a bit different, offering staged readings of brand-new plays in conjunction with the Shakespeare Festival.

Two new plays were treated to readings in 2011, but this year, the field has expanded to three. Under the umbrella of "The Midwestern Voices Playwrights Festival," the Festival will showcase playwrights Philip Dawkins, Jennifer Blackmer, and Ike Holter with a four-day residency that includes readings of their new plays, as performed by members of the ISF professional acting company. All three readings are open to the public, and they'll take place at Bloomington's historic Vrooman Mansion at 3 pm on July 15, July 29 and August 5.

I asked the ISF's Jesse Cannady, who is working with "The Midwestern Voices Playwright's Project," for some background information on the project and how it all began. Here's what Jesse had to say:

"'The Midwestern Voices Playwright's Project' began last season as 'The Playground,' which was developed by ISU MFA Jessie Dean and her husband, up-and-coming playwright Gabriel Dean. Janet Wilson asked me to follow up on this program (with a new name) after Jessie and Gabe left Normal for several workshops of Gabe's work... From there I was charged with finding three playwrights.

Ike Holter
(© Ryan Bourque)
"I knew off the bat I wanted Ike Holter in residency. Ike wrote the the smash of Steppenwolf's 2011-12 season, HIT THE WALL. The production was extended twice and sold out within hours each time. It was a stunning piece with a lot of heart. Ike's words are lyrical and beautiful and we cannot wait to workshop his new play HELL-CARE that will be premiering in Chicago this fall.

Jennifer Blackmer
"Jennifer Blackmer joined us next. Jennifer is a friend of mine who has mentored several of my playwright friends and is a professor out of Ball State University. Jenn had a different new play developed this last semester at Illinois Wesleyan under Tom Quinn which I had the pleasure of seeing in performance. The workshop production showed a lot of heart and a brilliant female lead. Jenn let me know she was working on a commission out of LA, and I knew we had our second playwright. Jenn's beautiful adaptation, ALIAS GRACE, will play second."

Philip Dawkins
"We are thrilled to welcome Phil Dawkins to the festival as well. Phil came to us through ISU students currently serving as interns at the About Face Theatre in Chicago. He is currently serving in the Playwright's Ensemble at Victory Gardens where his play THE HOMOSEXUALS played to great reviews last season. Victory Gardens will present the world premier of his new play-with-music FAILURE: A LOVE STORY this holiday season. His play, MISS MARX, will premier this season at an area university.

"We couldn't be more thrilled to work with these three playwrights and present their work on stage.

"While in residency, each playwright will work differently with our actors, directors, and support staff to make any necessary changes to their piece. At the end of the process, each Sunday, we will present a reading at the beautiful Vrooman Mansion with a talk-back session immediately afterwards. These readings will be bare bones, focusing on the text, allowing our playwrights the rare opportunity of hearing their words with out seeing all that other 'stuff' that goes along with a play."

Thanks, Jesse!

The plays presented will run the gamut from healthcare (HELL-CARE) to revolution and social conscience (MISS MARX) to murder, memory and the nature of guilt and innocence (ALIAS GRACE, based on the book by Margaret Atwood.)

I will give you more information on the individual plays and playwrights as we get closer, but for right now, you'll want to mark your calendars for 3 pm on July 15th, July 29th and August 5th.

Exciting new work that we get in Bloomington-Normal before it hits Steppenwolf or Victory Gardens or The Playwrights Center? That's a do-not-miss!

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