A 1937 black-and-white film brought to life on stage, in black and white.

An avant-garde playwright’s meditation on American life and art.

A Restoration-era comedy with characters writing blogs and text messages received in the audience.

An original play exploring attitudes toward Mexican migrants using golf as a metaphor.

These theater productions — all from Utah universities — are being staged this week at the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Los Angeles. With the innovations and quality of these shows, it's a record-breaking year for the state in theater. The four productions in the 2011 regional competition are the largest number from the state in a single year.

The festival is Feb. 8-12 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University and Weber State University are all represented.

“On a national level, we have an enormous amount of respect for the theater programs in Utah. The Utah productions have always been a tent pole at the festival,” said Gregg Henry, national artistic director of the festival. “In fact, we’re not surprised to see so many great productions come out of Utah; we have come to expect it.”

Considering that all universities and colleges in Region 8 — schools located in central and southern California, Arizona, southern Nevada, Hawaii and Utah — are able to submit productions to be considered for the festival, the honor becomes resoundingly clear.

According to John H. Binkley, a regional festival chair, two Utah universities have consistently been able to achieve success.

“UVU and Weber State are the only two schools in our region that have such a strong record of successful productions,” said Binkley, an associate professor at California State University Northridge.

“Being selected to participate is similar to when your basketball team is invited to the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament,” said Thomas Priest, chair of WSU’s department of performing arts. “(The festival) is an exciting and educational experience for our students.”

James Arrington, UVU’s theatrical arts department chair, explained there is a benefit for students when they compete with the “mega” theater departments from other states in the region.

“When the students see themselves excelling against stiff competition, it’s a great feeling, a lift,” he said. “Students go head-to-head with other students in their chosen field and many are already graduate students. We also see what other universities are doing, and our students audition for prestigious summer programs and scholarships.”

The four Utah shows are competing in Los Angeles for a chance to be selected at the national festival, held from April 18-23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing.

The following is a look at each production.

"Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico," Utah State; Shawn Fisher and Adrianne Moore, directors.

With fictional characters created after company members conducted interviews around the Arizona and Mexico borderlands, “Golf Balls” was written by Fisher.

"As Americans, we often look down on Mexican migrants because we think they’re lazy, but we fail to see these people have walked hundreds of miles through scorching desert to go to work so they can feed their families,” Fisher said.

The play has nothing to do with golf. The title comes from a sign at a Texas golf course. It is a pervading metaphor for the production, Fisher explained, to illustrate his belief that Mexico is “a little playground” for many Americans.

“The play is an original, devised piece that takes a controversial topic ‘ripped from the headlines,’ to use the old adage, and treats it in a simple, nonpartisan, humanitarian way,” said Colin Johnson, director of USU’s theatre arts department.

"She Stoops to Conquer," Utah Valley University; Christopher Clark, director.

Originally written by Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith in 1773 under the title of “Mistakes of a Night,” “She Stoops” inaugurated a new style of laughing comedy and is considered a classic of English literature. In this production, there’s a twist.

“We’ve found some ways to draw interesting technological connections to our modern society,” Clark said. There are cellphone photos, instant-messaging on Visagebook (the era's version of Facebook) and Wii Rock Band guitars.

“Chris has re-imagined a play from the 18th century and mixed it with modern sensibilities in a kind of magical way,” Arrington said. “You see people of hundreds of years ago adopting the actions, patterns of behavior and social networks that we have today. It seems rather outrageous. But by the time it’s over, you think, ‘Hey, these guys were a lot like us!’ ”

“She Stoops” is the director’s third play to be selected for the annual festival.

“What makes Clark’s works so successful is his ability to reinvent established plays and make a clear connection to our contemporary world,” Binkley said.

"Stage Door," BYU; Stephanie Breinholt, director.

Because the Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman play, on the struggles and suitors of Broadway actresses in the 1930s, was adapted into a pre-Technicolor movie, the director combines theatrical and cinematic elements to transform the stage as if it were being seen by the audience on a black-and-white television. Stage furniture is in black, white and gray. A wardrobe and make-up palette of muted colors are also used to enhance the feeling of seeing a black-and-white film classic live. Before the production begins, a black-and-white short film featuring the play’s characters is projected on a screen, which is also used to announce intermission and for end credits.

“Film footage is used alongside live performances; theatricality combined with realism; color used to shift perception of black and white,” Breinholt said. “This is an experiment in design, acting, direction and collaboration.”

"Under Construction," Weber State; Tracy Callahan, director.

2 comments on this story

Written in a collage-like style by experimental playwright Charles Mee, the play is inspired by illustrator Normal Rockwell and contemporary installation artist Jason Rhoades. "Under Construction" juxtaposes “the ’50s and the present, the red states and the blue states, where we grew up and where we live today,” the author explains, to stage “a piece that is, like America, permanently under construction.”

“When people ask me what ‘Under Construction’ is ‘about,’ I tend to give a fairly bewildered look, then do my best to form the words to describe a piece of theater that is anything but formulaic,” Callahan said. “It is full of song, dance and monologues from iconic characters.”

The play’s author provides a script of various scenes of American life but invites the director and cast to add their own material — and instructs that some of his scenes can be deleted. So every production gets “re-constructed,” according to the director.

Blair Howell edited national, New York City-published magazines while living in New Canaan, Conn. Now a freelance editor and writer, Blair lives in Cedar Hills, Utah, with his wife and two sons. Yes, he enjoys live theater.