Michigan Made: Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival puts the spotlight on new works for the stage


Theatre Nova's yellow barn building

Theatre Nova's yellow-barn home. Photo courtesy of Theatre Nova.

Part two of Theatre Nova’s semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival has an added evening that gives more opportunities to shine the spotlight on new playwrights. In addition to staged readings of four full length plays, the festival will set aside an evening for the presentation of six 10-minute plays.

The Michigan Playwrights Festival is in its fifth season, part of Theatre Nova’s focus on new plays and playwrights. Twice a year, a committee selects four plays for presentations in staged readings. The festival will present a play each night Oct. 24-27. The Evening of 10-Minute Plays will be presented Oct. 23.

The four plays selected for the regular festival are The Lion’s Share by Catherine Zudak, Dear Camp by Lisa MacDonald, Silo Tree by Sam Collier, and Blight by R.D. Wakeman.

Playwright Sarah Elisabeth Brown is coordinating the evening of 10-minute plays for Theatre Nova.

“The evening is new to the festival and comes out of a group I started in conjunction with Theatre Nova about a year ago called the Nova Lab, which is designed as a resource to playwrights of all levels who would like to develop their craft,” Brown said in an email interview. “Our signature event is called Prompts for Playwrights and we meet on Sunday evenings when the theater is dark.”

She said most of the playwrights contributing to the evening of 10-minute plays will be presenting for the first time.

“They are lawyers, English teachers, neuroscientists, students who are exploring their creativity through the avenue of playwriting,” she said.

Prompts for Playwrights provided a place to develop new talent.

“In the group, we do two 20-minute free-writes on a particular topic or writing exercise that I bring in,” Brown said. “After each free-write, people have the opportunity to share what they’ve written but this is always voluntary, no one ever has to share. Then the group offers strength-based feedback only.”

In August, Brown had a play selected for production at BoxFest Detroit, meant to develop women directors. Shelby Seely, a senior at Eastern Michigan University, was chosen to direct Brown’s play, Pizza Slut.

“I loved her work on my piece and immediately invited her and her friends from the Theater Department at Eastern to come and read scenes we’d been working on in Prompts for Playwrights,” Brown said.

When the evening of 10-minute plays was approved by Theatre Nova, the budding playwrights who had been doing free writes turned their talents toward creating their own personal and structured plays.

“A play should have a change of, an arc, a transformation, or an escalation. How do I build that dramatic action so that there is some sort of journey in my piece,” Brown said.

EMU student actors and directors coordinated by Seely will be presenting the scripts on Oct. 23.

The plays being presented will be Can We Talk by H (V. Holman), The Flight Mates by Mounier Bendahmane, The Garden and Back by Aliyah Rose Kiesler and Haley J. Cook, Keep Talking, I’m Listening by Patrick Clement, So Close to Magic by H (V. Holman), and Mistress Chelsea by Sarah Elisabeth Brown.

Theatre Nova's Playwrights logo

“I think what we came up with is funny, touching, there’s a wide range of scripts and there is no doubt it has been transformative for each of us as writers to move from the cocoon of the creative nest to honing working that is ready for the public,” Brown said. “While I have had much more experience presenting work for the public, the fun and learning for me happened in helping everyone else be ready for that.”

A gladiators arena in Nero’s Rome, a hunting camp in the U.P., a house on the way to death, and an absurdist dystopian world are the settings for the four full-length plays receiving staged readings at Theatre Nova. 

Catherine Zudak didn’t start out to write a play about ancient Rome.

“What I really wanted to do was write a play about Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the national anthem,” said Zudak. “I got really interested when I heard some young fans had burned their Kaepernick jerseys in response. I wondered why are these kids so angry? How is this hurting them? I wondered why they felt like he wasn’t free to express himself that in that way.”

Zudak said she’s been interested in ancient Rome since she was a child.

In The Lion’s Share, Leonis, a gladiator, yearns for his freedom, while those around him want to exploit him. His owner wants him to be the top gladiator. A young boy looks at him as a hero. Leonis wants freedom but refuses to fight dirty. In the arena, he decides not to salute Caesar in protest over slavery.

“I did my eighth-grade term paper on the Roman legions and I’ve read pretty much everything Edith Hamilton ever wrote,” Zudak said. “She was a classics scholar who made Roman history very accessible to non-scholars. Anyway, Rome, despite being ancient, has a lot of the same problems we do, so it made a good backdrop. Gladiators are a bit more like boxers than football players, but it still works.”

Zudak had submitted to Nova’s play festival in the past, but this is the first time one of her plays has been accepted.

“I’m a huge proponent of staged readings,” she said. “I helped inaugurate a new play festival at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre about 12 years ago.”

She said Civic usually presents “tried and true” favorites but every year gets submissions from playwrights. Their festival was an answer to those interested in new works for the stage.

“One thing that really struck me when I was reading the submissions is that a lot of them had never been read by anybody besides the playwright,” she said. “They never had a kitchen table reading with their friends. They never worked with actors on developing their play. And it really showed in their plays.”

Lisa MacDonald’s Dear Camp is set in the Upper Peninsula at a deer camp but the "a" in dear in the title suggests the subject.

“This is isn’t your typical deer-camp story,” she said. “It involves a recently widowed woman who spends the night in her husband’s camp with four friends. Their plan is to clean the place out and get it ready to show to a prospective buyer. She finds a journal kept by her husband. What could go wrong when four women, a little alcohol, old hurts, and secrets come together during a blizzard in a hunting camp in the Upper Peninsula?”

MacDonald lives on Drummond Island and has been involved with the Eastern Upper Peninsula Fine Arts Council productions for eight years.

“We have a small talent pool of mostly older, retired folk [women] who are willing to be coaxed up on stage,” MacDonald said. “We found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find scripts for our spring productions that (a) had mostly older, female characters and (b) would be something our unique community would actually be interested in attending.”

MacDonald said that she was attending Mass with her husband when the idea for Dear Camp.

“Pretty much the entire plot was in my head by the end of the service,” she said. “That’s probably a special kind of sin.”

Dear Camp is her first play. 

“They say to write what you know,” she said. “My husband and I share a hunting camp and we are active in maintaining our little piece of sanity.”

She said she looks forward to seeing if her characters are as interesting to an audience as she has imagined.

“I’m hoping that there might be one person in attendance that sees potential and ‘gets it’ from a northern Michigan perspective,” she said.

Sam Collier’s Silo Tree is set “in a house that people travel through when they die.”

“Laiah, Lou, and Wiley are caught in this place of betweenness, and through the story, I’m exploring what it means to live in the borderlands between two worlds,” Collier said.

Collier said she was interested in the midwestern landscape and trees that grow up through abandoned silos.

“When I read that there were buried shipwrecks all over the midwest, where rivers used to run before their paths were altered by humans, I started writing a play about a house that used to stand by a river and now stands in a field. The story grew from this combination of images,” she said.

Collier began writing plays in college when as a theater major she took a playwriting class.

“Everything clicked into place for me. I found it incredibly exciting to tell a story in front of a live audience and to collaborate with a whole team of creative people,” she said.

Collier said the staged readings have been invaluable,

“As a playwright, I spend a lot of time sitting alone and imaging characters speaking these words, so the opportunity to work with actors and directors is such a gift,” she said. “After writing this play in grad school, I set it aside for a while, so I’m eager to jump in and do some rewriting. I’ll be very interested to hear it out loud and audience response will help me find my way into the next draft.”

R.D. Wakeman’s Blight is set in another kind of house, a mansion in a dystopian world.

“A nanny finds herself working for a once-wealthy family in a once-opulent mansion,” she said. “Disintegration permeates as people and possessions disappear from the house. Outside, the blight exists. The circus has come to town, evoking the idea of escape but Nanny can only find her way out of the absurdity if she’s looking for it.”

Wakeman said Blight deals with “the theme of not questioning or even acknowledging, things like misinformation, surveillance and unwarranted mandates."

Wakeman began writing plays after studying theater in college.

“In my final year, I went to a performance in a tiny attic of a pub that was so transformative that I knew I wanted to create theater as a playwright,” she said.

Wakeman said the staged readings help the writing process in “clarifying rhythm and pace in dialogue.”

“They also provide an overview of the play’s structure and insight into any issues,” she said. “Having a play read before an audience creates an exchange, a new dynamic as the script transforms into theater. I have been to many of Theatre Nova’s staged readings and have experienced how well they bring a script to life.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The schedule for Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor:

An Evening of 10-Minute Plays, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23.
"The Lion’s Share," 8 pm, Thursday, Oct. 24.
"Dear Camp," 8 pm, Friday, Oct. 25.
"Silo Tree," 8 pm, Saturday, Oct. 26.
"Blight," 2 pm, Sunday, Oct. 27.

For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or go online to theatreNOVA.org. The Michigan Playwrights Festival is supported by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.