Activate: Midwest gives audiences first peek at brand new plays

Because new plays are integral to the future of American theater there is Active: Midwest. The Western Michigan University Departments of theater and English will host the event June 16, 17 and 18. The festival, now in its second year, offers emerging playwrights and actors an opportunity to work next to professional playwrights.

"New play development is vital to the future of American theater, and it is happening at every major theater in the country, so why not here on our college campus?" asks WMU theater professor Mark Liermann. "We are very excited to be training our students in this work – to be engaging with these tremendously talented playwrights creating new work."

The festival is also seen as an event that puts Kalamazoo and WMU in the spotlight. “There is no doubt that Activate: Midwest will both strengthen the work of local artists through professional engagement and also provide local arts patrons with an exciting new venture," says  Dr. Joan Herrington of WMU theater. "And…it will be one more arrow pointing to Kalamazoo on the national map."

Activate: Midwest begins to come together when WMU puts out a call for plays and receives submissions from across the region. A play selection committee read plays over the winter and selects four to be featured in the summer festival, which takes place at Western Michigan University’s Gilmore Theater Complex.

In a festival like this audiences are a central part of the playwriting process as they may be witness to the first public presentation of these works. The response of the audience and their input in post-play discussions also will significantly impact the future of the new works. WMU's Theatre Department says it can be exciting for audience members to share work early in its life and gain great insight into the artistic process and the role of both artists and audiences in shaping a play.

Theater professionals from Chicago will be in Kalamazoo the week of June 13 to provide feedback to the playwrights. WMU students and local alums are the cast in the productions that are staged with some props but are not full productions. After the festival, one play will be selected to receive a workshop production in Chicago later in the summer, presented by WMU.

Directors are Kevin Dodd (Festival Director), Joan Herrington (WMU theater Chair and founder), Mark Liermann (WMU theater faculty), and Tucker Rafferty (local KRESA teacher and playwright).

The Activate-Midwest Festival also combines resources with WMU’s New Play Project, a class which is co-sponsored by WMU’s Playwriting Program and the Department of Theatre. It is one of the few theater departments in the country with this kind of consistent focus on new work. 

"The merging of the New Play Project – now in its thirteenth summer – with the Activate: Midwest play festival," says Dr. Steve Feffer of the WMU Playwriting Program, "will allow our student playwrights and actors to work side by side with professional playwrights in experiencing the new play rehearsal process and in developing their own work."

This year's festival schedule

Thursday, June 16, 7:30 p.m.- Keynote speaker Steven Dietz, with his new play in process Mad Beat Hip Gone, followed by a Q&A. Mad Beat Hip Gone: A road trip – running from your past – searching for something unknown – and running into the greatest beat poets of all time on your way. Fueled by Steven Dietz’s characteristic humor and his signature bittersweetness, this is is the story of two young men stuck between two places and unable to find a home in either.

Friday, June 17,  7:30 p.m. – Borrowed Babies by Jennifer Blackmer, followed by a discussion with the playwright. As Judy London nears the end of her career as a Professor of Home Economics, an encounter with one of her former “practice babies” leads her to question her life’s journey, and the sacrifices she’s made on the way.

Saturday, June 18, noon – Good Enough by Cara Beth Heath, followed by a discussion with the playwright. Only a Gibson is Good Enough. This play takes us back to a time where America was making war while the women of Kalamazoo were making guitars. Following the journeys of Irene, Helen, Alice, Jenny, Mary Jane, Delores, and June. Good Enough takes an unyielding look at these women’s lives, loves, and the way they must live in a world at war. With tension taut as the strings of a Gibson guitar, these women must navigate their place in an ever-shifting landscape, constantly wondering if history will remember their unique contribution to American music and the war effort. They are kept alive by the music that emanated from the instruments they crafted.

Saturday, June 18, 5 p.m. – Faces and Names by Max Bush, followed by a discussion with the playwright. CJ is struggling with an event that happened five years ago. Kristin, a journalism student, is found early one morning on campus, unconscious, naked, with blood on her. CJ decides to help Kristin by approaching the suspected attacker. Kristin does a series of interviews with two young Iraqi women concerning Khatana, or the mutilation of young girls. As CJ becomes more involved with the alleged attacker, the interviews with the Iraqi girls become more and more problematic.

Saturday, June 18, 8 p.m. - Pocketful of Sand by Emily Dendinger, followed by a discussion with the playwright. Eight minutes. That’s how long it takes for a soul to dry up before it can be preserved by the sea. This play introduces us to an old man named Coco who harvests souls from bodies he pulls from the sea, and how he comes to teach his trade to a young orphan girl named Sunny. As the more sinister aspects of Coco’s work begin to emerge, however, Sunny must decide for herself whether or not the work they are doing outweighs the costs.

All events are free. No reservations are necessary. Activate: Midwest is made possible by contributions from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, WMU Cultural Events Committee and the WMU English Department.

Source: Emily Duguay, WMU Theatre Department