Playwright’s Lab’s New Works Initiative Builds Artistic, Economic Partnerships Locally and Nationwide

PlaywrightsLabFrom Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City to Burlington, Vermont, and here in Roanoke, the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University is developing an impressive number of new stage productions by emerging student writers, thanks to a collaborative program described as “re-inventing Off-Off-Broadway.”

The New Works Initiative of the Playwright’s Lab was established in 2008 and has already helped provide production assistance and travel costs for dozens of student readings and productions in legitimate theatres nationally and locally. It enables student writers to work with guest professional directors and offers support for them to work as actors, dramaturgs, and designers on plays by prominent guest writers associated with the Playwright’s Lab such as Lucy Thurber, recipient of the first Gary Bonasorte Memorial Prize for Playwriting; television writer and playwright Jeff Goode; and Obie Award-winner W. David Hancock.

“We have been able to bring more than 70 top-tier artists to Roanoke to work with our students and build an energized, enthusiastic audience for new plays,” says Todd Ristau, program director of the Playwright’s Lab. “It is the perfect place to develop new work that can go on to productions in major theatre centers.” For example, The Arctic Circle and a Recipe for Swedish Pancakes, written by Playwright’s Lab student Samantha Macher, was produced at Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre and then transferred with the original cast to the Playwright’s Horizon Studios in Manhattan.

“We’ve mounted more than 25 full productions of plays associated with our program, and we’ve staged dozens of readings, presented special touring events and workshops by nationally known theatre artists, and provided support for our students who are creating their own new companies and doing new work all over the country.”

Ristau notes that in many cases the biggest barrier to producing new work is finding adequate funding to cover the production and travel costs. However, he emphasizes that “the Playwright’s Lab feels it is an important part of our mission to sponsor our student writers when opportunities to realize their work on stage arise. That’s why we have established a separate fund for the sole purpose of offsetting costs associated with the production and presentation of plays by or involving our students,” a fund that depends largely on individual donors as well as local businesses and area arts organizations.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” he explains. “In exchange for financially supporting the work that we’re doing, businesses and organizations get exposure to a growing demographic of hip, smart, vocal audiences. The relationships we forge therefore have a profound cultural and economic impact on our community.” In addition, Ristau says these associations are helping make Roanoke more and more of “an ignition point” for new work that creates strong connections with the international theatre scene.

“Building partnerships like this and creating opportunities for the success they afford our students is nothing short of revolutionary.”

The Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University will present The Matador, “a one-act anti-play” by Robert Plowman and directed by Todd Ristau, on the Waldron Stage of Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre February 6 – 10.


Multiple Honors Propel Hollins into Spotlight at Region’s Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival

bellocq'sA Hollins Theatre original production, two of the university’s student playwrights, and three Hollins student actors have been recognized by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), a national theatre program dedicated to improving the quality of college theatre in the United States.

Hollins Theatre’s staging of Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia is one of five full productions from the southeastern United States chosen for performance at the Region IV KCACTF, which takes place February 5 – 9 at Darton College in Albany, Georgia. One of the productions will be selected to represent the region and compete for the top prize at the 45th annual national KCACTF in Washington, D.C., in April.

Bellocq’s Ophelia is based on the book of poetry by Trethewey, a 1991 graduate of Hollins’ master of arts program in English and creative writing, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Adapted by Associate Professor of Theatre Ernest Zulia, Associate Professor of English T.J. Anderson III, and Lexie Martin Mondot, a member of Hollins’ class of 2012, the play premiered at Hollins Theatre last February and was presented as a concert reading at The Kennedy Center’s 11th annual Page to Stage Festival of New Play Readings in September.

In addition, the KCACTF’s Region IV awarded its top playwriting honor to Meredith Dayna Levy, who graduated from Hollins last spring. Levy was recognized for her drama, Decision Height, which Hollins Theatre originally staged in October. The play will be presented as a concert reading at the Region IV KCACTF and as a full production at the festival in 2014. Decision Height has also been nominated for two major national prizes to be awarded at The Kennedy Center in April.

Kevin Ferguson, who along with Levy is currently a graduate student in the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, had two of his original scripts selected for the regional festival as part of the Region IV National Playwriting Program. Follies a Deux and Losing Sight were chosen for the Ten-Minute Play and One-Act Play categories, respectively. Both will be presented in staged readings and will compete for the top prize for Short Plays at the national KCACTF this spring.

“Naturally, all of us in the theatre department are proud and excited to have our work receive such validation,” said Zulia. “It’s highly unusual that one university should win so many honors. As the Region IV chairman said, ‘It sort of looks like it’s going to be an all-Hollins festival!’”

Zulia also announced that three Hollins students, seniors Kaitlin Heath and Maria Latiolais and sophomore Russell Wilson, have been nominated to compete for the national Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships, which provide recognition, honor, and financial assistance to outstanding student performers wishing to pursue further education. Approximately 400 students vie for this prestigious acting award.

“This could not have come at a better time,” Zulia stated. “We now have fantastic, newly renovated facilities, and have earned a strong reputation for excellent productions, so we are poised to take the next steps to make Hollins a place where students want to come specifically to study theatre and playwriting on the undergraduate and graduate levels. This valuable recognition will definitely help advance the cause.”


Kennedy Center Bestows National Recognition to Hollins Theatre, Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University

bellocq'sThe Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) honored a Hollins Theatre original production and two of the university’s student playwrights with national awards as part of its annual recognition of outstanding theatrical work by colleges and universities across the country.

Hollins Theatre’s staging of Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia received the equivalent of four silver medals, including “Distinguished Production of a New Work,” “Distinguished Performance and Production Ensemble,” “Distinguished Scenic Design,” and “Distinguished Choreography.” Bellocq’s Ophelia is based on the book of poetry by Trethewey, a 1991 graduate of Hollins’ master of arts program in English and creative writing, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Adapted by Associate Professor of Theatre Ernest Zulia, Associate Professor of English T.J. Anderson III, and Lexie Martin Mondot, a member of Hollins’ class of 2012, the play debuted at Hollins Theatre in February 2012. It was subsequently one of five full productions from the southeastern United States chosen for performance at the Region IV KCACTF, which was held in February of this year in Georgia.

Meredith Levy, who graduated from Hollins in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, won the National Partners of the American Theatre Playwriting Award, considered a gold medal, as well as the regional David Shelton Award for her original script, Decision Height, which premiered at Hollins Theatre last October.  The play was presented as a concert reading at this year’s Region IV KCACTF and will be staged as a full production at the festival in 2014.

Another graduate student in the Playwright’s Lab, Kevin Ferguson, was honored as a National Finalist for The John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play for his script, Losing Sight.

The awards will be officially presented at the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, which takes place April 17 – 20 in Washington, D.C.


M.F.A. Playwright Honored by the Southeastern Theatre Conference

PlaywrightsLabRobert Plowman, an M.F.A. student in the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, is the winner of the 2014 Charles M. Getchell New Play Award for his work, The Missing Link.

A Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) panel of readers who are prominent in the profession selected The Missing Link for recognition from 58 submissions.

As the winning playwright, Plowman will receive a staged reading and critique at the SETC’s annual convention in Mobile, Alabama, and an all-expense paid trip to attend. He will also be presented a $1,000 cash award at the SETC’s annual gala on March 9, 2014. The play will be considered for publication in Southern Theatre magazine.

The Missing Link will contend for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Award for Excellence in Playwriting. That award will be announced next year and the winner will receive further development opportunities through SETC’s partnership with the ATHE.

“We’re especially proud to note that the winning play was written for the course First Drafts,” said Playwright’s Lab Program Director Todd Ristau, who teaches the class. “The Missing Link joins an impressive list of plays from this course that have received professional readings, productions, and publications. At Hollins, we do indeed get work done.”


Playwright’s Lab Enjoys Banner Year in 2013

PlaywrightsLabHollins University is earning a stellar reputation nationally for the study of playwriting, thanks to a Master of Fine Arts program that is only in its sixth year.

Launched in 2007, the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University has to date generated roughly 250 productions of student-penned plays and nearly 140 readings at festivals and theatres across the United States. Thirty student plays have been published and student playwrights have garnered more than 60 honors and awards.

“A low-residency, six-week program designed to be completed in three to five summers was a radical approach to teaching playwriting, but the Playwright’s Lab has attracted a growing number of students who are rapidly gaining success and recognition in the profession,” said Program Director Todd Ristau.

Mark Bly, head of playwriting at Hunter College, described the Playwright’s Lab as “a real gem, a one-of-a-kind program. This is a hot bed of American playwriting,” while Robert Patrick, who has been called “America’s Most Produced Playwright,” said in a television interview, “These are real professionals training people to be real professionals.”

The past year alone offers ample evidence to support Bly and Patrick’s respective acclaim. In January, Playwright’s Lab students Meredith Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’15, and M.F.A. playwright Kevin Ferguson were both honored by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF). Levy received the KCACTF Region IV’s top playwriting award for her drama, Decision Height, and Ferguson had two of his original scripts, Follies a Deux and Losing Sight, selected for the regional festival as part of the Region IV National Playwriting Program. They were chosen for the Ten-Minute Play and One-Act Play categories, respectively.

Follies a Deux was subsequently selected for performance at the second annual New Voices Playfest, held in April at the Atlantic Stage Theatre in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The event also featured the one-act play, The Place Between, by M.F.A. playwright Wendy-Marie Martin. In addition, the Atlantic Stage Theatre presented the world premiere of Ferguson’s drama, Child’s Play, last spring.

Other highlights from 2013:

  • Bo-Nita by Elizabeth Heffron M.F.A. ‘14, first read in public at the Hollins Playwright’s Festival, was produced by Portland Center Stage and Seattle Repertory Theatre for their respective 2013-14 seasons. In its review, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stated, “Sometimes the stars align perfectly in the theater. The play is excellent, the directing crisp and the acting picture perfect.” Heffron’s comedy/drama, Mitzi’s Abortion, was Hollins Theatre’s fall production and played to sold-out audiences.
  • Jonathan Galvez M.F.A. ‘13 won the tenth annual New Jersey Playwrights Contest and was appointed guest artist by the University of Great Falls theatre department.
  • Neeley Gossett M.F.A. ‘12 was named a finalist in the 2013 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and her play, Roman Candle Summer, was staged at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre in Atlanta. The play also had a reading at the Lark Play Development Center in Manhattan.
  • M.F.A. playwright Robert Plowman won the 2014 Charles M. Getchell New Play Award for his work, The Missing Link. His one-act “anti-play,” The Matador, was presented on Mill Mountain Theatre’s Waldron Stage in Roanoke.
  • Plays by Samantha Macher M.F.A. ‘12 (To the New Girl: Sound Advice for My Former Husband’s Wife or Mistress) and Royal Shirée M.F.A. ‘13 (Cat House) were published by Original Works.
  • In March, the SkyPilot Theatre Company in Los Angeles announced that of the 26 plays it had in development, ten were written by Playwright’s Lab alumni.

The Playwright’s Lab is closing the calendar year by creating two new certificate programs, one in new play writing and the other in new play performance.

“Exposure to actors and directors is vital for the development of playwrights and their work,” Ristau explained, “and it seemed an exciting challenge to come up with a community wherein playwrights, directors and actors could be brought together with specialized training in working on new plays without the expectations, expense and demand on resources that a full degree program would require.

“With the help of visiting faculty and other advisors, we’ve created something that will expand Hollins’ reputation and attract new students in a very exciting way.”