Though it’s an honor just to be nominated for an award, we all know that it’s even better to win. And for each of the last 10 years, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in UNM’s dramatic writing program has received top recognition from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival—the university-level equivalent of winning a Pulitzer for literature or an Oscar for film. Perhaps the most stunning element of this growing legacy is that the program is only a decade old; it’s been producing nationally renowned emerging playwrights for the whole of its existence.
The general ethic of UNM’s theater department rests upon providing students with a steady stream of opportunities to create, perform and produce throughout each semester. In addition to completing 60 hours of coursework, those who earn a M.F.A. in dramatic writing craft a portfolio containing a minimum of six original works, including three full-length stage plays, one full-length screen play, one short script and a dissertation. And on at least one occasion (usually in their final year of the three-year program), they see a work through from draft to stage in the Words Afire festival.
Also in its 10th year of existence, Words Afire was founded by the dramatic writing program’s first head, Digby Wolfe (whose many writing credits include “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”). Jim Linnell, former artistic director of the festival and now interim dean of the College of Fine Arts, says that when it began, Words Afire took a “guerilla-like approach” to theater; plays by undergraduate and graduate students were shown over the course of three weeks and staged all around town. The initial aim was to offer as many students as possible the chance to produce their original works. That meant that though the experience gained was crucial, the resources allocated to each performance were modest.
“This is a moment to reflect on where we started and consider where we're going."
As the festival evolved, Linnell explains, it became clear that investing greater resources in fewer works might prove more beneficial to the students’ professional development. When acclaimed playwright Elaine Avila assumed direction of the dramatic writing program three years ago, she encouraged this shift in the festival’s ethos. Linnell notes that Avila “brought focus to those graduating from the M.F.A. program,” aiming to “send them into the world with real, practical, professional knowledge.”
In Avila’s new tradition, Words Afire places particular emphasis on the works of M.F.A. playwrights completing their last semester. Each play is fully staged and produced by a high-level artistic team of actors, lighting specialists, and costume and set designers. Through the department’s “Directors Initiative,” each writer is paired with a professional director—sometimes established, other times emerging, but always highly regarded—in the hope that they will form a lasting relationship.
This year, the festival features two such plays. Erin Phillips’ That One Forbidden Thing tells the tale of a young woman’s sensory sexual awakening, performed under the internationally esteemed direction of Kathleen Weiss. Aaron Frale’s comedy Economically Viable chronicles a couple in danger of losing their house and will be directed by Tricklock Company’s Kevin R. Elder.
In addition to Phillips’ and Frale’s fully produced performances, Words Afire presents workshop readings of Nic Wehrwein’s Anything & Always, GHE’s The Circuz and Riti Sachdeva’s Kennedy Center Quest for Peace Playwriting Award winner Parts of Parts & Stitches, directed by Shepard Sobel, Dodie Montgomery and Valli Rivera respectively. The compositions of undergraduate dramatic writing students are showcased in The Hot Six, a late-night lineup of 10-minute plays produced by Blackout Theatre Company.
Considering the significance of the festival’s 10th anniversary, Linnell remarks that “this is a moment to reflect on where we started and consider where we're going." But no matter how you look at it, it seems that UNM’s playwrights will continue to accomplish amazing things. Award-winning things. And Words Afire gives you the chance to witness them.