By Hannah Tarr
Actors Theatre of Louisville is one of the most renowned theatres in the country. Known nationwide for its Humana Festival of New American Plays, it is every playwright’s dream to someday have their script performed on one of its hallowed stages. For two FC students, that dream has come true already.
Like many FC students, junior Caleb Hammer and sophomore Maddie Hankins were required to write a 10-minute play as part of the New Voices residency, and similarly required to then submit that play into the New Voices Young Playwrights Contest. But unlike any other FC students this year, their plays were selected to be produced in the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival.
According to acting teacher Robbie Steiner, that residency works like this: “Students participate in residencies with teaching artists from Actors Theatre who help them learn how to write their own original 10-minute play. After completing their 10-minute play, it is submitted to the New Voices contest at Actors Theatre of Louisville with approximately another 900 plays from around the region.”
From those 900 plays, only eight are selected. It is therefore a huge honor for two FC students to be winners. To have a chance of being selected, a play has to stand out one way or another in order to catch a judge’s eye.
Hankins’ and Hammer’s plays certainly stand out. Hammer’s, Ahab and His Vegetable Garden, is a modern, comedic version of a little-known Bible story from 1 Kings, Naboth’s Vineyard. Hankins’, Sharing in Solitary, is a story about two prisoners who don’t share on Taco Tuesday, and are accidentally sent into the world of a children’s TV show called Bernadette l’adventurier. They are trapped here until they can learn how to share.
“My play is kind of wacky,” admitted Hankins.
Wacky and unique is good, though.
“I appreciate that Actors Theatre picks a lot of unique stuff, because I think it inspires the new voices of our region,” said Steiner.
Listening to the emerging new voices in theatre is what the New Voices contest is all about.
“Students are the future of theatre, you know?” said Jelani Cornick, director of Hammer’s show. “It’s important for students to write plays and keep writing, because inevitably they’ll be people who are going to be on Broadway someday, or writing TV shows, so it’s important for us to acknowledge that students have voices and they’re very important, and we have to tend and foster these voices that everyone has.”
The students’ involvement with their plays does not end when they write the words LIGHTS DOWN and send their play away to be judged. Once selected, students have the privilege of attending rehearsals to see their writing come to life before their eyes.
Hankins explained how the beginning of the rehearsal process worked. “It’s amazing. I love doing it. It started in March, we had three rehearsals, each of them were about a few hours long,” she said. “We would go, and all of the playwrights, and some of the executives, and all of the dramaturgs and directors were in the room. And we would read our plays aloud. We would get feedback not only from the people from Actor’s Theatre, but from our fellow playwrights.”
With the plays refined, rehearsals got into full swing. Hammer and Hankins attended as many rehearsals as they could to be on hand to answer questions and give opinions as needed by the directors.
“The playwrights, they’re always welcome to give their input or not, anything they see, anything they want to hear, I’m very open to that,” said Cornick. “And just having an open dialogue about the play, you know? And just being honest, and trusting each other that we each know what this play needs to be put on.”
To the students, though, it can come as a surprise to realize that they know what the show needs.
“Sometimes they’ll ask me something and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t think about that,’” said Hammer.
Hankins loved moments like that. “This is the coolest thing ever to see- gosh. It’s so cool because I got a phone call and they were like, ‘What are your costumes going to look like? What do want your set to look like?’ These are all things that I had never even thought of when I was writing the play,” she said.
Hammer has loved seeing actors turn his play into something really great by adding their own choices that he never even dreamed of to his script. “The plays on their own, they’re okay, but with the actors doing what they do, they just go to an entire other level,” he said.
Cornick, who is a member of Actors Theatre’s Professional Training Company, says that the only difference between working these students’ scripts and those of adults is that students are new at it.“I don’t really change my language, or like change my attitude,” he said. “I treat everyone as an adult, and I respect the playwright because this is their work and they deserve to have everything that they want out of this play because they wrote it.”
Cornick said he likes to hear the unique perspectives of the young playwrights by working on New Voices.
“I don’t get to always meet young people and meet young artists, so working on the New Voices festival really helps me to communicate with the young artists and see where their minds are and see like what the future of theatre is going to be,” he said. “I’m still young, I’m not like an old guy. But it’s just very refreshing, just to be in the same room with a younger generation that has the same interests as me and I’m very happy to know that theatre is going into the right hands.”
After weeks of preparation, the shows opened last week and were very successful. Hankins said the process has been the most amazing thing she’s ever done in her life. “It’s just so cool to watch something that you’ve written turn into something onstage,” she said.
Students from FC took field trips last week to see their classmates’ work being performed. Steiner said the trip was educational for everyone involved.
“I think that it’s important for students to see other students’ work being performed because it shows them what’s possible, shows them that their own creativity is worthy and is important,” he said.
As audiences watched the shows, Cornick said he hoped they would realize the legitimacy of our area’s new voices. “Young voices matter, and they have a lot to say, and we should all listen to them.”