The BYU Department of Theatre will be highly honored at the 47th annual national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival April 13-18.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced the award recipients, which include two BYU stage productions, on March 19.
BYU's production of “Our Town” is receiving the Outstanding Production of a Modern Classic award and recognition in 12 other categories, including Outstanding Director of a Play for Stephanie Breinholt, a BYU theater and media arts assistant professor, and Outstanding Performance and Production Ensemble for the staging of the Thornton Wilder drama. BYU competed against more than 600 collegiate theater departments from across the United States.
“Stephanie and her team took a simple, sweet, beautiful play and gave it an epic feel with the addition of film,” said Gregg Henry, KCACTF artistic director. “It was a radical approach, to incorporate film to a live stage production, but I still remain fascinated at the power of the performances and the seamless inclusion of film.”
In addition, BYU’s “Single Wide” was honored with a Michael Kanin Playwriting Award. The new, original musical was composed by Jordan Kamalu, a BYU student, with the book and additional lyrics written by George Nelson, a BYU professor who teaches playwriting.
“It’s safe to say that BYU made the biggest splash at the festival this year,” Henry said. “I know from his students’ work that George is a great playwriting teacher, and it was very gratifying to see him honored for his own work.
“It’s an extraordinary thing," Henry said, noting that the back-to-back-to-back Utah honors, with the Utah Valley University Theatre Department production of “Next to Normal” earning the Outstanding Musical award at last year’s festival and UVU’s “Vincent in Brixton” being named Outstanding Drama the previous year. "I don’t know if it’s something in the water or the constant view of the mountains that inspires you out there. But you really have very gifted people working with students in Utah. I’m very proud of our friends at Utah colleges. It’s been three great years for them.”
The student actors in the BYU production of “Our Town” uniquely interacted simultaneously with other student actors in a full-length film broadcast at the rear of the stage. Actors traversed the barrier from the stage to the screen.
“Our culture is increasingly unfamiliar with live theater, and I wanted the audience member who was familiar with screens for movies, television and phones to come into the theater and feel comfortable seeing images on a screen,” Breinholt said. “The characters literally came through the screen onto stage, thus bringing the audience from the screen into a new kind of theatrical experience.”
Scenes for the movie version of “Our Town” were filmed in the Utah towns of Eureka, Goshen and Spring City, as well as on a green-screen set.
“As a director, I love working with students and collaborating with out-of-the-box ideas,” Breinholt said. "My production team, cast, stage crew and film crew — virtually all students except for me — really shaped and guided what ‘Our Town' would be.”
The overriding theme of “Single Wide” involves “love, loss and moving on for a community of neighbors in a trailer park,” according to production notes. Nelson was prompted to write the musical while his daughter was involved in a divorce.
“The hurt and the pain I went through as her father, not even the person in the middle of the divorce, made me look for an outlet for my feelings,” he said. “‘Single Wide’ became my way of working through these feelings as I examined the lives of people who felt lost, used up and thrown away.”
“Single Wide” will have a second life when it is staged July 7-27 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where the production will have a substantial budget and will be seen by the New York industry and area theatergoers.
“There isn’t a playwright hunched over his computer that doesn’t dream of Broadway,” Nelson said. “The reality of having our show directed by a Broadway-experienced director, performed by Broadway actors and produced in an off-Broadway festival in New York City is a huge step toward reaching that goal.”
The musical will be directed at the prestigious annual event by a BYU graduate, Jeff Whiting, who worked closely with the director/choreographer Susan Stroman on such Broadway hit shows as “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Big Fish” and, recently, “Bullets Over Broadway.”
“From the first page of dialogue that I read of ‘Single Wide,’ I recognized immediately a unique point of view and style in the writing of this heartwarming story,” Whiting said. “It’s got all the right combination of elements: really fun music, compelling characters and a heart at the core.”
The full list of awards BYU is receiving for “Our Town” is Outstanding Lighting Design, Mark Ohran; Outstanding Costume Design, Ashley Cook; Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Mackenzie Larsen; Special Achievement in Film and Projection Design, David Jon Banks; Distinguished Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Brittany Stahly; Distinguished Performance by Actors in a Leading Role, Morgan Gunter and Jacob Swain; Distinguished Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Joseph Skousen; Commendation for Achievement in Stage Management, Hannah Richardson; Commendation for Achievement in Performance, Andrew Lustvig; and Commendation for Achievement in Scenic Design, Travis Coyne.