University Theatre hosts third annual New Play Festival

contact: Emily Duguay
| WMU News
Photo of Charles Smith.

Keynote speaker and playwright Charles Smith

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The Western Michigan University departments of theatre and English will host the third annual Activate: Midwest New Play Festival Thursday through Saturday, June 15-17, in the Gilmore Theatre Complex on WMU's main campus.

All festival events are free and open to the public. Reservations are not necessary.

The festival combines resources with WMU's New Play Project, a class which is co-sponsored by WMU's playwriting program and the Department of Theatre, one of the few theatre departments in the country with this kind of consistent focus on new works. It allows 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.

Audiences become a central part of the playwriting process through the festival, as well. They may be witness to the first public presentation of these works, and their response as audience and their input in post play discussions will significantly impact the future of these new works. It offers great insight into the artistic process and the role of both artists and audiences in shaping a play.

Playwrights from across the region submitted their work to the festival for consideration. Out of 81 submissions this year, three plays were selected for a staged reading as part of the festival. Plays to be featured are Box Step by Seth Kramer, Blood Moon Baby by Emilio Rodriguez and Brooklyn Baby by Darcy Sturges.

After the festival, one of these plays will be selected to receive a workshop production in Chicago later this summer—a significant opportunity for all playwrights and their new work.

Festival founder and Department of Theatre Chair Joan Herrington says she is looking forward to the stories being shaped at the festival this year.

"In an array of styles—but all with devastating honesty—this year's plays all happen to explore a search for identity and its relationship to the bond between parent and child, in particular, unexpected parenthood, children that are lost for one reason or another, and the power of family," she says. "It is a bond that often leads to heart-wrenching decisions."

Playwright Charles Smith will give a keynote address at the festival, followed by a staged reading of his most recent play, "Objects in the Mirror," which is enjoying critical success at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Participating playwrights and WMU students will have the opportunity to learn from Smith through workshops and response sessions throughout the weekend.

Midwest is sponsored by contributions from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, WMU Cultural Events Committee and the WMU Department of English.

Festival schedule

Thursday, June 15 

  • 7:30 p.m.—A keynote address will be delivered by Charles Smith, followed by his play, "Objects in the Mirror," and a question-and-answer session. In the play, Liberian refugee Shedrick Yarkpai works to escape the horrors of his war-torn homeland and begin anew in Australia. But his path to peace is haunted by an explosive family secret, and Shedrick must confront the ghosts of his past to reclaim his present. Charles Smith illuminates a war refugee’s dangerous odyssey in this gripping new play about identity, survival and the sacrifices of assimilation.

Friday, June 16

  • 7:30 p.m.—"Blood Moon Baby" by Emilio Rodriguez will be followed by a discussion with the playwright. In the wonderful magical realism style of Jose Rivera, Rodriguez explores power, individual rights and our instinct for love and acceptance in the world of sea lions and their trainers.

Saturday, June 17

  • 4 p.m.—"Brooklyn Baby" by Darcy Sturges will be followed by a discussion with the playwright. This startling drama examines the devastating impact of foolish young choices. Brooklyn Baby follows Jessa, a 17-year old girl, in her desperate attempts to get her baby Dayquan back into her custody. When resources aren’t available and with no support system, Jessa's options are limited.
  • 7:30 p.m.—"Box Step" by Seth Kramer will be followed by a discussion with the playwright. A box step is a simple dance sequence that always returns the dancers back to their home position. This story is one of loss, rediscovery and the intricate dance of a family trying to return to one another.

Charles Smith

As alumnus playwright of New Dramatists, graduate of the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and one of the founding members of the Playwrights Ensemble at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, Charles Smith has taught playwriting at Northwestern University, for the Prague Summer Program in Creative Writing in the Czech Republic, and for the Center for Dramatic Art in Groznjan, Croatia. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Playwriting at Ohio University where he is head of the Professional Playwriting Program. He is also an Ohio University Presidential Research Scholar in the Arts and Humanities.

Smith's plays have been produced off Broadway and from coast to coast by theaters such as Indiana Repertory Theatre, Goodman Theatre, New Federal Theatre, The Acting Company, People’s Light & Theatre Company and many others.

His most recent play, "Objects in the Mirror,"  received a developmental production at the Tony Award-winning Goodman Theatre in 2016 and was produced on the Goodman main stage in 2017. Smith has received numerous honors for his work.

His plays may be obtained through Samuel French, Northwestern Press, Dramatic Publishing, Smith and Kraus, Swallow Press and Alexander Street Press.

about Activate: Midwest

Activate: Midwest is dedicated to developing and producing the plays of emerging theatre artists. It provides the Kalamazoo community and WMU students with an opportunity to engage with emerging and professional theatre artists from across the Midwest.

For more information, call the WMU Department of Theatre at (269) 387-6222.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.