The actors, staff and audiences of the Utah Shakespearean Festival have been busier than normal the past few weeks.
The New American Playwrights Project has been in full swing it began 15 years ago as a way to help aspiring playwrights and to encourage the development of new plays and audience participation.
August saw the crop of new plays for 2008 in their first staged readings. "We had more than 100 solid entries this year, and from those we've chosen three new amazing works," said Charles Metten, director of the New Play Project.
This year's selected playwrights are T.J. Edward from Brooklyn, N.Y.; David Rush from Carbondale, Ill.; and Matthew Ivan Bennett, from Salt Lake City.
"I think I've wanted to be a writer since the third grade," said Bennett, "I wrote Jamie Deever a poem. I don't even remember what is was about something like she was a candle in the dark and she decided to go out with me and I realized that was my vocation."
Bennett may joke about his early beginnings, but after 12 years at his craft, a degree from Southern Utah University, and at only 31 years of age, he has written over a dozen full-length plays and is also the resident playwright of Plan-B Theatre Company which will focus its upcoming season on works written by Bennett, including "Di Esperienza," the work selected for the USF New Play Project.
"I think he's got a knack for dialogue and character that most people never achieve," said Jerry Rapier, producing director for Plan-B Theatre Company and director of "Di Esperienza," "He knows how to instantly place you inside a play. His talent and skill are far beyond his age."
Rapier commissioned Bennett to write a piece about Leonardo da Vinci. "It entailed a lot of research," Bennett said, "There are 20,000 pages of notebooks. I didn't read them all, but I think it's fair to say that I read at least 2,000. I waded through it."
Bennett's play examines Leonardo da Vinci the man, who was a procrastinator plagued with self-doubt.
The other plays featured at this year's New Play Series are "Father Mike," a nostalgic comedy that takes place in 1955; and "Germinous Seeds," which uses Herman Melville's life and work as a point for three interrelated stories two actors play three roles each.
Through a series of workshops, the playwrights have been able to see their works on stage for the first time. With the help of the festival's professional actors, as well as the audience, the playwrights have been tweaking a few things for a final presentation beginning Wednesday.
"For the playwrights it's an invaluable experience, because, unlike novelists, playwrights are involved in a collaboration," explained Amanda Caraway of the New Play Project. "They can learn so much about their own piece once they hear the words come out of the mouths of actors. Until they get that collaboration, it's just not complete."
The workshop process is engaging for audience members as well. "It really gives people an opportunity to be involved in the process on a whole new level," said Caraway. "They get to be involved from the very beginning and they can really make an impact on the final script. If you make a suggestion and the playwright takes it to heart, you'll see those changes in the final production."
"The feedback was really helpful," Bennett said. "Just getting that very simple feedback of, 'Would you come see this play?' helps me a lot. That's a reality check that's very difficult to get."
"It's also exciting for the actors and directors," Caraway continued. "There are many times that all you can do is make your best guess as to what the playwright is trying to say. In this case, you can actually ask the playwright. There's no uncertainty."
The three plays will be presented Wednesday through Friday. "I feel deeply grateful to be selected," Bennett said after noting this was the second time he applied. "They unanimously picked my script. So, I went from getting a generic form letter last time to getting lots of enthusiasm, which is always nice. And having four strong Equity actors to read my play didn't hurt."
Bennett's play will also run April 3-19 as part of Plan-B Theatre Company's '08-09 season.USF is currently taking submissions for the '09 play project. For more information, go to www.bard.org/plays/napp2009.html.
If you go ...
What: The New American Playwrights Project, New Play Series
Where: Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City
The Plays: Di Esperienza, Matthew Ivan Bennett; Father Mike, T.J. Edward; Germinous Seeds, David Rush
When: Wednesday through Friday
How much: $8 per play or $21 for the series