‘Underground New Play Festival’ brings new talent and vision to the Iowa Stage

A playwright's laboratory
The Underground New Play Festival runs through Oct. 12. — photo by Jen Rouse

This year marks Theatre Cedar Rapids’ (TCR) fifth year hosting its Underground New Play Festival — quite an achievement considering the festival’s humble origins.

Leslie Charipar, Artistic Director for TCR, said that the festival began about six years ago to showcase directors who wanted to direct shorter plays. Originally, community members could submit original or established works. Many of the plays submitted were original works Charipar said, so the festival transformed into a space for writers to showcase new plays.

Since then, the festival has grown every year, with 13 new plays this fall, all of them fully staged in TCR’s Grandon Studio. The members of the selection panel read all 30 play submissions, then worked together to choose the final list. They also cast each play — a daunting task this year due to auditions that were three times larger than previous ones.

Charipar says some writers in the area even look to the festival as a deadline for producing new work.

That is true for Erica Hoye, the playwright of No Safe Refuge. She envisions her play as the first in a trilogy about the civil war in Syria, and she’s already started on the second play in the series.

Hoye also believes that the festival serves a necessary role in exposing audiences to cutting-edge work.

“The tried and true plays and musicals are great, and they have stuck with us for a reason,”  said Hoye, “But I think experiencing new art that provides us with a statement of where we are, here and now, is incredibly important.”

While some submit full-length works, author Emma Drtina submitted a 10-minute one-act play. Tinderella is about a young woman using the Tinder dating app to look for love and is the first play Drtina has ever written.

“I finally felt like it was time to get my work out there and to get some feedback on it,” Drtina said. She added that she was very happy with her last-minute decision to submit her play.

Brian Tanner has had three of his original works accepted to the Underground New Play Festival. Tanner is a bit of a play festival veteran; he has also had plays accepted into festivals at City Circle Acting Company of Coralville, Mt. Vernon/Lisbon Theatre and Riverside Theatre. His submission to this year’s festival, Bus People, is a dramedy about a man riding the bus for the first time.

“One thing about the TCR Underground is that submissions are read blind by the selection committee, so there’s no influence based on who wrote the play,” Tanner said. “It’s all about the quality of the script, so I think that adds to the prestige.”

Playwrights have varying levels of involvement during the rehearsal process of their plays. Tanner prefers to minimize his level of participation.

“While I like being a part of the rehearsal process, I also know that if any of my plays are picked up elsewhere, I’m not really going to have much control about what’s done with it,” Tanner explained. “I’ve learned to let things go and trust the directors and casts.”

Other playwrights use the comments from the actors and director as an opportunity to make revisions. Hoye rewrote parts of her play after discovering that the actors disliked one character.

“I always liked [the character] and had great empathy for the situation that she was in, but a lot of my rewrites stemmed from people’s dislike of her,” Hoye said. “I had to make her more likeable, and the actor is an integral part of that.”

“No matter how something sounds in your head or even when you read it aloud to yourself, it sounds different when it has someone else’s brain and life experience behind it,” explained Hoye.

Many actors are grateful for this opportunity to converse with the playwright. Hannah Spina, who is acting in the play Reluctance, can reach St. Louis-based playwright Elizabeth Breed through the play’s director.

“I’ve never experienced that before, getting to talk to the playwright,” Spina said. “You can’t just call up Shakespeare and ask, ‘What does this line mean?'”

Spina finds this especially helpful as she becomes the first actor to portray the play’s main character, Juliana. As the play begins, Juliana is taking a walk on a bridge the night before her wedding when she comes across a man about to jump off, and she tries to stop him before its too late. “It’s remarkable to think I am the world premiere of this character, and I hope people see her the way I see her,” said Spina.

The festival is also a great opportunity for directors to work with a variety of material. Local actor Kevin Michael Moore decided to take the opportunity to try his hand at directing once again, taking on two short plays: Peepers, a comedy about a young man introducing his girlfriend to his family, and The Woman and the Frog, a mature and semi-musical modern update of The Frog Prince. It is one of two plays to incorporate music, a first for the festival. “I believe this is also the first festival show to have a puppet as a main character,” Moore explained.

In the future, Charipar would like the festival to evolve into a year-round process. “I hope it creates a laboratory feel,” Charipar explained. “It could be a resource to help playwrights develop their work.”

The writing talent is one of the reasons why the festival is one of Charipar’s favorite TCR projects.

“I don’t know if people are aware of how many good writers are here,” said Charipar. “At least in eastern Iowa, we have some pretty professional writers, and that is exciting to know about our community.”

Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin. She has experience in acting, directing, playwrighting and dramaturgy, and has presented work at the Midwest Pop Culture Association Conference.

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