Play festival features student works

by Matt Hill | 5/25/06 5:00am

A writer once said that there's a poet in all of us, sitting in our minds like an old man waiting in the rain for his train to come -- and if the upcoming Frost and Dodd Play Festival is any indication, it seems there's a playwright sitting right next to him.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings this week, Dartmouth students will be able to witness the best work of their theatrically-inclined peers. The Bentley Theater will play host to the winner of this year's Dodd Drama Prize, Sarah Hughes '07's "Dreaming Biloxi," and this year's Frost winners, Ronald McCants '06's "A Poet's Prayer" and Candy Singhakowin '06's "Bathe."

This year's festival is actually a conglomeration of what used to be two separate, but highly anticipated, events: The Eleanor Frost Play Festival began back in 1950, honoring the best in original, student-produced one-act plays with a cash award and a staged reading by the Theater Department, and the Ruth and Lorring Dodd Drama Prize was established in 1969 to reward the most accomplished full-length student play with a full production, directed by a Dartmouth faculty member.

"It's been great fun working with the students," said Peter Hackett, a 1975 Dartmouth grad and current theater professor who will be directing the bench reading of "Bathe." "This is one of the only opportunities that playwrights at Dartmouth have to understand the production process and the ways in which plays are really made in the professional world."

A challenging aspect of the extensive preparation for the festival's staging of the selected plays is that, even while the actors are working on learning their characters and getting familiar with their lines, the script, under the supervision of the playwright and the director, is undergoing a constant process of tweaks, additions, subtractions and other forms of revision.

"I always ask the playwright to talk openly about their play," Hackett said. "At the beginning of the process, Candy was concerned that her ending was too predictable -- that the audience was ahead of it. I agreed, but these are issues you can address. I said, 'You know, this is your play and we're here to get the play you want.' Even when we're in rehearsal, the actors have input as well, making suggestions for cuts or asking questions about their lines, if they want."

"It's always a joy to work with undergraduates who are passionate about theater," said Carol MacVay, a visiting professor from the University of Iowa who will be directing "Dreaming Biloxi." "Most, if not all, of the 'Biloxi' actors had never worked on a play in its early stages. They've been excited not only to witness the evolution of a script but often to contribute to its changes."

Singhakowin said that she found inspiration for her play, "Bathe," after reading David Henry Hwang's "M-Butterfly."

"I became fascinated with the idea of the Oriental mystique," she said. "Some ideas from that play reminded me of observations I made about Westerners whom I'd seen in Thailand and China, so I decided to write a play about it."

Singhakowin also expressed her gratitude to the actors in her play, saying that "it was very difficult to tell, while envisioning the characters I painted in my head, what worked and what didn't work. Having actors bring my characters to life was extremely helpful."

McCants' play, "A Poet's Prayer," meanwhile, was not as singularly inspired. "The need to tell this story did not come from one place," he said. "It is an amalgamation of many of my own experiences, feelings, observations, readings and beliefs."

The play centers on a 19th-century slave named Abram who struggles with ideas of freedom and family. "It's a story about the triumph of the human spirit with the help of the Divine," McCants said. "It's a story of Hoodoo, spirituality, philosophy, love, patience, endurance, hate and pressure."

Sarah Hughes said that writing "Dreaming Biloxi," which was inspired by her experiences doing Katrina Relief in Mississippi over winter break, was trying at times, especially given the sheer amount of work and revision she put into it -- but also because it was ultimately an incredibly rewarding experience.

"This is a play about destruction, connection, confusion and faith in the wake of Hurricane Katrina," she said. "I hope that audience members will come away with a better understanding of the ongoing situation along the Gulf Coast, and of what it's like to be a volunteer there. Hurricane Katrina may be out of the mainstream news, but there is still so much work to do."

"We looked for verbal, visual and visceral potential in the script," MacVay, who was also on the selection committee, said. "We looked for plays that dealt with the tyranny of one space and didn't feel more like screenplays. Plays that came from a personal impulse, with a specific voice and perspective -- plays that really got our theatrical juices flowing."

"The whole event is here to serve the play and to serve the playwright," Hackett said. "They could make a change -- make a cut, bring in 10 new pages at the last minute -- and we'd go with it. This is really their event."

"Bathe" will be shown on Thursday, May 25, and Saturday, May 27, at 8 p.m., while "A Poet's Prayer" can be seen on Friday evening at 8 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m. "Dreaming Biloxi" will be shown following both showings of "Bathe" on Thursday and Saturday, with a discussion immediately after Thursday's show. All performances of this year's winners will take place in Dartmouth's Bentley Theater.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!