Curtain Calls XTRA

Preview: 2005 'Michigan Theatre Festival'
Nine professional theaters unite to produce historic festival in Ann Arbor

Theater will be busting out all over Ann Arbor next month when the 2005 Michigan Theater Festival opens its doors at multiple locations June 8.
The historic event represents the first time nine local professional theaters have joined forces to co-produce a specific event.
"I'm pretty amazed," Carla Milarch, artistic director of the Performance Network Theatre and one of the event organizers recently told Curtain Calls. "I've been in the business in this area for about five years now, and I've never seen anything involving this number of theaters all participating to an equal degree. That's the thing that's so cool about it."
Heartlande Theatre Company's Mary E. Rychlewski, another project leader – and someone with much longer ties to the local community – agrees. "I'm so proud to be part of this because ego has gone out the window."
The five-day festival consists of staged readings of 12 new plays by nine different theaters, Heartlande's annual 12-hour short play marathon, a panel discussion on the challenges of developing new works and nightly wrap parties. Events will be held at Performance Network's main stage Shure Theatre, the Mosh Pit Theatre and its upstairs ballroom, and at the nearby Blackbird Theatre at the Children's Creative Center. Participants include the BlackBird Theatre, BoarsHead Theatre, Heartlande Theatre Company, Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company, Meadow Brook Theatre, Performance Network Theatre, Planet Ant Theatre, Plowshares Theatre Company and the recently formed Williamston Theatre Project.
According to Milarch, the festival came about as the result of various – but parallel – forces that collided at a rather fortuitous time. "It's the combination of the fact that we had the venue open and Jan (Radcliffe) and Mary had the desire to rally this group of Michigan theaters that eventually led to a coalition that formed piece by piece over the course of about six months."
"We got everybody all in one room, believe it or not, and we came together as a community, as a coalition – which is what we're calling ourselves – to put this festival on," Rychlewski added. "And it's been extremely exciting!"
The result is an event that reads like a "who's who" of Michigan's professional actors and directors – all of whom are donating their time and services to the festival. And Actors' Equity Association – the union that represents America's professional actors and stage managers – has granted a waiver for the project.

The Staged Readings

Although all of the participating theaters develop and produce new works, the festival has its roots in Performance Network's annual Fireside Festival of New Work.
"We've been doing a new play festival for about five years, and every year we've invited other theaters to participate, so it's something that we've been sort of striving for, for several years," Milarch said. "About this time last year we made the decision to move the festival from January to June to make it more convenient for other theater to commute and act. So once we did that, Jan and Mary approached us and said, 'How can we collaborate with you guys on this?'"
The result was a decision to remake the Fireside Festival into a much broader new works festival.
"That's when Bart Bund at Blackbird Theatre and I started talking," Milarch said. "Since we have The Mosh Pit, we thought how cool it would be to have three venues so that people could really move around and have a real festival feel to it. He's been very instrumental in moving this forward."
Each of the nine theaters will produce one or two staged readings. The scripts, according to Milarch, are at a point where they're ready to be produced. "They're ready to take a trial run in front of an audience."
Each of the 12 new plays will be performed twice over a five-day period. The readings are done with scripts in hand, with little blocking and technical requirements. A talk-back session between the playwright and the audience will follow certain performances.
The Festival opens Wednesday, June 8 and runs through Sunday, June 12. A wrap party for participants and ticket holders will conclude the day's activities Thursday through Sunday in the Performance Network's lobby.


Saturday, June 11 is going to be one crazy day at the Performance Network.
For in addition to the staged readings scheduled for that day, the Heartlande Theatre Company will present Play by Play 2005, its ninth annual fundraiser that treats theatergoers to a 12-hour marathon of 24 fully-staged 10-minute plays, the majority of which are receiving their world premieres at the event.
"Play by Play is not a competition, which is different from a lot of the 10-minute play festivals around the country," Rychlewski noted. "This is a fundraiser, and people are working for free. So we try to set up an environment that will allow the artistic community to play. What that means is, if you want to try your hands at directing, you can do that. If you're an actor who's always in dramas and you'd like to try a comedy, then this is the place to do that."
It's also designed to give feedback to the playwrights – most of whom will be in attendance – during the talk-back sessions that will follow most performances. "It's so important for the audience to be there. It allows them to respond to what they've seen and heard. That gives the playwrights so much valuable information to take to their next step."
Heartlande – which exists solely to facilitate the development of new plays – receives 150 to 300 submissions each year from hopeful playwrights from around the world. Each of the "final 24" will be presented twice: once during the afternoon and again following the midpoint put luck dinner.
Hundreds pass through the doors each year to attend at least one play during the festival. And because it doesn't have a theater to call its own, the festival moves each year to a different location. "We feel that Play by Play needs to travel so that we reach all of the communities. Being in Ann Arbor is fabulous, as it's really a new works audience. It's exciting to be there!"


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