The 12 finalists in the Ashland New Plays Festival’s 2017 playwriting competition is the "strongest batch” in Kyle Haden’s three years as artistic director.

"Any of them would make a good script for a good production,” he says.

Four, however, rose as the cream of the crop.

Powerful human stories with topics ranging from a police shooting to a 16th-century woman asserting her independence, the plays examine headline-making news and explore a maze of complicated relationships. Told by fully fleshed-out characters, the stories are poignant and pointed.

The playwrights are passionate about their themes and elicit understanding and empathy for complex issues, Haden says.

A dramatic reading of each of the four plays is the cornerstone of the ANPF’s 26th annual Fall Festival, running Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 18-22, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

In “A Dark Sky Full of Stars,” playwright Don Zolidis looks point-blank at the heated issue of police shootings.

"What We Were” by Blake Hackler follows three adult sisters, survivors of childhood abuse, as they each go through a healing process.

Callie Kimball’s play “Sofonisba” unravels the tapestry of 16th-century Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola’s life as court painter and lady-in-waiting for King Philip II and Queen Isabel of Spain.

The slice-of-life drama “Go. Please. Go.” by Emily Feldman spans 70 years in the lives of a couple who after agreeing to break up end up spending decades living in the same apartment together.

"We really responded to these stories,” Haden says. “We felt they were stories we needed to tell, and ones audiences would want to hear.”

Women are center stage and behind the curtain with the staged readings featuring predominately female casts and directed by female directors.

In “A Dark Sky Full of Stars,” action centers on Brandon, a young man in and out of trouble with the law, who is shot to death by a rookie cop after a suspicious traffic stop. Point of view shifts to the six people most involved in Brandon’s life from the police officer to his girlfriend to his family and explores the events leading up to his death.

Haden says Zolidis is creative in looking at life after the shooting and the repercussions.

“It’s masterfully done,” he says. “It’s an issue we are all thinking about and feeling strongly about. And, as is always the case, there are no simple, easy answers."

Directed by Claudia Alick, Emily Ota heads an all-female cast playing both male and female roles.

Set against the landscape of west Texas, “What We Were” examines how three sisters cope with the past and heal from childhood wounds.

Haden says the play examines the sisters’ relationships in such a way the audience will want to talk to the characters and be involved in their lives.

Holly L. Derr directs Jamie Ann Romero, Lolly Ward and Sherilyn Lawson.

"'Sofonisba' is a polished, interesting story full of human moments,” Haden says. “It’s very compelling as it follows the story of the artist and the queen over a 20-year span."

Nancy Rodriguez plays Sofonisba and is directed by Stefanie Sertich.

Haden, who says he rolled up his sleeves to act in “Go. Please. Go.,” called Feldman’s play lighter fare than the other three.

"It’s a charming travel through time,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Kris Danford and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend play the couple whose love is forged through sharing space and life for 70 years. Jackie Apodaca directs.

Haden says older audiences have told him that watching the actors reading from a music stand on a bare stage reminds them of the radio plays of the old days.

"One must imagine a world created with only words,” he says.

The festival opens with “A Dark Sky Full of Stars” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, and it will be performed again at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21.

Performances of “Go. Please. Go.” will be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20; “What We Were” will be at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21; “Sofonisba” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22.

Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at ashlandnewplays.org or at the door.

For more information, visit ANPF’s website at www.ashlandnewplays.org.