|‘Surfacing’ Shines Stage Lights on Student Talent |
Festival lets playwriting students see their work performed
A strange family poisons the Department of Family Services official who is investigating them. A caped superhero and villain iron out their insecurities on the couch of their common psychologist. A budding physicist discovers that in his universe, existence depends solely on keeping the audience’s interest. Meanwhile, the Brawny Man – yes, that Brawny Man—navigates gender roles in a very public, evening-long spat with his Brawny girl.
|Webster students perform “The Five Payments,” a play written by English/Creative Writing student
Such is the stuff of “Surfacing,” the annual playwright festival started by Webster creative writing students that now attracts student talent from throughout Webster University.
Associate professor Michael Erickson, an award-winning playwright himself, is the festival’s faculty mentor. With plenty of experience seeing his own scripts reach production, he helps guide student writers, directors, and crew as they put on a professional-looking show.
When Erickson joined Webster in 1994, a smaller spring program already existed, so he and his playwright students expanded it. “Back then there was usually just one play. This year there were seven,” he says. “It seems to grow each year.”
"A play isn’t complete until it’s performed, and sometimes the performance surprises the writers: like an architect who finally gets to see the house he designed."
A reading committee of mostly Lit Club students reviews scripts submitted by students – many, though not all, from students in the English department’s Creative Writing program. This year there were more than 40 submissions – the most ever – making selection difficult and spurring the decision to feature seven short plays.
“The tradition is that the students do everything,” Erickson says. “The planning, writing, auditioning, directing, acting, stage crew. A lot of students who have never done this kind of thing get involved, so it’s a great opportunity.”
That opportunity extends beyond College of Arts & Sciences students. A student – this year it was film studies major James Hansen – serves as artistic director for the whole festival. The artistic director manages auditions, directors, rehearsals, and the overall feel of the event. Stage management, sound, and lighting design in the Emerson Studio Theatre is handled by students from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts.
The use of trained stage crew makes it an impressive production. “The Conservatory crew really help ensure professionalism and keep everything in place,” Hansen says.
“Of course, Surfacing is really all about the writers,” he says. “They are with the plays every step of the process, and without them the festival could never be so successful.”
From Script to Stage
Webster students in “The Last Temptation of Hepsomet,” a play written by Webster student Dan Kram.
One such writer is senior English/creative writing major Molly McNew, who graduates this year. 2007 was the third year her scripts were performed at Surfacing, after she acted in the festival during her freshman year.
“Acting is fun,” McNew says, “But I really like the writing aspect of it – being involved at every level.”
McNew was responsible for the aforementioned Brawny Man appearing in this year ’s festival, in “Even the Brawny Man Has His Problems.” Her humorous, unconventional script placed her actors in the seats with the audience at the opening. They continued their performance – still in their seats – during each of the set changes for the six other plays.
The play drew laughter and anticipation from the audience. Attendees turned toward the couple at the end of each play to see what stage of romance, reflection, or lovers’ quarrel the characters would get into next.
“I was a little nervous about how the audience would react, having to turn away from the stage to watch the characters,” she says. “But I’m very happy with how it worked out.”
McNew’s consideration of the audience’s response to her Brawny Man and girl reflects what Erickson sees as a valuable aspect of Surfacing.
“For the writing students, it’s a great opportunity to see how their work plays on stage,” Erickson says. “A play isn’t complete until it’s performed, and sometimes that performance surprises them. Like an architect who finally gets to see a house that he designed. The students might be shocked by how the audience reacts to their work. They don’t laugh at the right spots, or they laugh at unexpected places.”
|Webster students in “Super Ego,” a play written by
Webster student Randy Lutz
The festival thus fuels discussion in Erickson’s playwriting classes – to say nothing of how it showcases the Creative Writing program and the talent throughout Webster’s student body.
This fall, McNew will continue her creative writing career as she enters the MFA program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. But before that, she’ll spend her summer finishing scripts and submitting them to festivals around the country – in part thanks to Erickson’s constant encouragement.
“Molly is just a wonderful student,” he says. “She’s been a great presence in our program.”
Though she will be missed, McNew ’s graduation creates an opening next year for another talented student – perhaps one who will tackle the emotional life of Mr. Clean.
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