Words Afire Festival unites UNM playwrights with NYC directors
The transition from the world of academics to the professional world can be jarring. The debut of the New American Plays Initiative at the ninth annual Words Afire Festival is the UNM dramatic writing program's way to alleviate recently graduated students’ scholastic separation anxiety.
Professor Jim Linnell is the festival’s artistic director and founder. He says the initiative, which brings in New York City-based directors from The Drama League to produce plays written by MFA students, is a big deal for UNM's dramatic writing program. "This collaboration puts us into play in a national network," says Linnell.
Drama League member Kerry Whigham spends half the year directing in New York and the other half doing regional work, typically in Massachusetts and central New York. "The Drama League is really the only nonprofit organization that works to give emerging directors in New York City opportunities," Whigham says.
Linnell says the festival's purpose—aside from producing new plays—is to provide dramatic writing program students with a launchpad into the professional world. "It's easy for writers and artists who leave intense graduate programs to find themselves out on the street saying, What the hell do I do now? And it doesn't make sense to have a writing program without a transition into professional networks," says Linnell. "Having a playwright never get a full production of their play is like being a carpenter and only drawing pictures of the furniture you make."
Whigham says reading Kamarie Chapman's Deception Pass: An American Dream in September 2008 made him eager to partake in the initiative's inaugural run. He says Chapman's story, about a woman returning to her island home in the Pacific Northwest for a funeral, combined a strong story and characters with magical, theatrical elements. Whigham estimates that Deception Pass' final production script is the 13th or 14th draft. "Most of what I do is new plays," Whigham says. "That's one of the things I love about them, is seeing their changes and evolution."
Linnell says UNM playwrights have won awards at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival every year since that festival's inception, which is just one indicator of New Mexico's presence and power in creating dynamic dramatic works.
"We have unique writers in New Mexico," Linnell says. "I'm always intrigued by the scope of the plays that come out of this program." The three full-production plays in this year's festival are connected by the theme of family and legacy but have plots that feature problem-solving in purgatory (Living Purgatory by Patricia Crespin), funerals (Chapman's Deception Pass) and mermaids (The Big Come by Marz Mráz).
Words Afire gives Drama League directors access to full-scale productions, which Linnell says is an opportunity they might not have in New York City. "You're not constrained to three actors in a living room because that's all you have in your budget," he says.
UNM provides visiting directors with a production budget, but the New American Play Initiative still tests the adaptability of its participants. "Being in the pilot program, you feel a bit like a guinea pig as the kinks are being worked out," Whigham says. "But I also get to help shape how the initiative works."
Linnell says he understands the challenges of executing a new program. "Any new initiative, when you're first in the throes of it, it has you cursing yourself for why you wanted to do this crazy thing in the first place," Linnell says. "But it's going remarkably well. The creative octane is at a high level."
In addition to fully mounted productions, Words Afire also hosts readings of MFA thesis plays from UNM. This year's readings are With the Tears of Men Who Know by Beth Iha, Profiles by Aaron Frale and The Promised Land by Erin Phillips. The other guest directors are Michael Goldfried and Lauren Keating. Words Afire kicks off Friday, April 24, and runs through Sunday, May 3. Visit www4.unm.edu/theatre for complete listing of shows dates and times.