New plays power new perspectives

Every classic play was a new play at one point in time, says Ashland New Plays Festival’s executive director Kyle Haden.

“Think of how exciting it must have been for that first audience to see ‘Hamlet’ or August Wilson’s ‘Piano Lesson’ or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton.’ All of the classics have to start somewhere,” he says. “Being part of that beginning process is exciting for the artists writing, for those directly working on the plays, for our readers sifting through all the plays looking for that gem, and for audience members who don’t really know what they’ll experience.”

It’s the anticipation of something new and unexpected, something moving and dramatic, that draws in the participants.

Ashland New Plays Festival will present staged readings of four new plays: Ian August’s “The Excavation of Mary Anning,” directed by Penny Metropulos; Nate Eppler’s “Primary User,” directed by Kyle Haden; Victor Lesniewski’s “Cold Spring,” directed by Terri McMahon; and Stephanie Alison Walker’s “The Abuelas,” directed by Ricardo Gutierrez.

Readings are set for Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 17-21, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St. Ashland. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at The readings start at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and are scheduled for 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, closing with a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Each reading will be followed by a discussion with Beth Kander (an ANPF-winning playwright in 2015 and 2016), along with the four 2018 playwrights and each reading’s cast. Kander will facilitate a playwrighting workshop at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20. Tickets will be $10 and available at the door.

When Ian August received a call from ANPF board co-president Carol Putman letting him know that “The Excavation of Mary Anning,” his play about a 19th-century female archaeologist, had been selected, he was ecstatic. Putnam says he was actually jumping up and down.

“It was thrilling, really exciting,” August says. “There are a number of different opportunities that playwrights submit to in a given year, and Ashland is a big deal. Being one of the selected playwrights this year, I was over the moon.”

For 25 years, Ashland New Plays Festival has teamed up with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Southern Oregon University and other theaters to showcase new work. ANPF is a dramatic maker’s space, incubating the work of playwrights in some of its earliest stages. Haden and associate artistic director Jackie Apodoca — who is also a professor of acting at SOU — cast the readings by bringing in professional actors from established companies as well as community theaters, students and local artists.

“It’s a great opportunity for playwrights,” Putnam says. “If they’re never had any sort of reading at all, to get a sense of the audience’s reaction, to hear the language of their play in the voices of professional actors. The festival gives playwrights a sense of what it would be like to see their play in a full production.”

And for the audience, Putnam says that it’s easy for them to step into the world of the play as they listen to and observe the actors.

Many playwrights selected for the Ashland New Plays Festival have had their work performed in full dramatic productions. A 2000 winning playwright, Karen Zacarias, received the Helen Hayes Award for her play, “The Sins of Sor Juana,” and returned to Ashland in 2018 for a fully staged production of her “Destiny of Desire” at OSF. Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living” was selected for the Women’s Invitational in 2016 and won a Pulitzer in 2018. Another, Jiehae Park’s “Hanna and the Dread Gazebo” was performed in 2017 at OSF.

“We’re entering a time of change in our society,” Haden says. “We’re looking to do things differently, different ways to connect with people, different ways to speak truth to power. We’re looking for new voices to tell their stories, and for people to tell familiar stories in different ways. I think about creating art for this new time we’re living in, and new plays are absolutely essential.”

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