There’s a lot going on in Edmonton’s theatre scene in February, but one of the questions that always seems to be in the back of everyone’s minds is: what’s next? Students at the University of Alberta’s New Works Festival have the answer: four plays written, produced, and brought to life by current University of Alberta drama students. Catch all four plays during the festival’s run, February 2 – 7.
Started in 2000, the New Works Festival is an opportunity for emerging artists to practice their skills and an opportunity for audiences and established theatre practitioners to see what’s percolating in the minds of the next generation of theatre artists. As festival Executive Director Cheryl Vandergraaf says, “The New Works Festival is by students showcasing playwright’s work-in-progress and eventually the final thing.”
Jessica Watson, who has been involved in the festival as an actor, a designer, an assistant director and now as the Artistic Director and co-director of one of the shows adds it’s an opportunity for students to, “take a big risk, but with not a lot of consequences. It’s being able to put your own work and own voice out there in a setting where everybody’s learning from it.”
While the focus of the festival is providing students perhaps one of their first opportunities to produce their own work, Jessica and Cheryl say the festival provides a lot of opportunities that help students develop and learn as much as possible during the process as well. One of the ways that is done is through the playwriting mentor that every playwright whose play is selected for the festival has access to. This year, the playwriting mentor was Elena Belyea, a University of Alberta alumni who wrote plays throughout her university career, and whose play Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable is playing as part of the Chinook Series until February 5. (Interested? Check out my review of the show.)
This year, the New Works Festival features 4 plays selected from 13 submissions by a blind jury lead by Jessica Watson. Of the jurying process, Jessica says once jury members (also students at the University of Alberta) have read all plays submitted, they meet for a discussion of the merits and challenges of each play. “We talk about things like our first impression, general understanding of the play. We talk about whether or not it would be suitable to the space we’re working in. With New Works, we try to be non-discriminatory to the style of the plays… but if you write a play that requires someone flying, we can’t do [that]. So we keep an eye out for plays with those sorts of design requirements where we know that even if we do put them in our festival, we couldn’t do them justice. We keep an eye out for size of play as far as length, cast, and spectacle go… Most of what we do is we go around and talk about what we liked about the plays, and we ask what could be complicated for us to do. Every play has issues for the space or for the festival so we talk through those and came up with alternate solutions… We do a voting system where everyone votes for their top three plays in terms of preference and we give them all points and add them up and whatever four have the top points, we talk them through and make sure everyone is okay with the decision.”
This year’s four plays are Raine by Cheryl Vandergraaf, Princess Bear by Julian Stamer, Maps to the Stars by Jessica Glover, and The Wolves by Ashleigh Hicks. The festival is scheduled in a Night A/ Night B format – Raine and Princess Bear play on Night A and Maps to the Stars and The Wolves play on Night B.
Cheryl, who wrote Raine, describes the play as being about, “vulnerability in relationships. It’s a very simple coffee shop setting play with a New York barista about a woman who meets this guy who wants her to let him in but she doesn’t allow him to. It’s a question of why and then figuring it out as they go along… I think a lot of people struggle with being vulnerable and honest with people, especially people they just meet, which is fair, but after a while you can only progress in friendships and relationships if you become a little bit vulnerable.”
Jessica adds that the jury loved how relatable the play was for them, “One of the first sequences with the two protagonists includes this playful banter and one of the first things she does is accuse him of hitting on her and that struck such a chord with me because it’s so true. If a guy walks up to a girl in a coffee shop and says ‘Oh hi, what are you reading?’ You automatically assume they’re hitting on you, that’s how it works… It’s so cute and so blunt… The two characters call each other on their shit, it’s great.”
The Night A cycle will be completed by Princess Bear, a fairy tale dark comedy by Julian Stamer – a fairy tale that’s not meant for children. Jessica describes Princess Bear as, “An absurd comedy. It’s so enjoyable. I was laughing while I was reading it. There’s a king and a queen who are struggling with the finances in their kingdom and they’ve been getting money by marrying their daughters off to wealthy princes… This Spanish prince shows up to marry one of their daughters and they realized they’ve run out of daughters to marry off.” The rest of the play is about how they go about fixing the situation they’ve gotten themselves in.
Jessica adds while the play is framed as a fairy tale, Julian has approached the genre in a unique way. “It feels like a story that you’ve maybe heard before, but told in a completely original way. It takes those stereotypical fairy tale tropes and turns them completely on their heads. Every time you think something’s going to happen, the exact opposite happens.”
Night B starts with Jessica Glover’s Maps to the Stars, which is about two people living in Hollywood who have “found a sure-fire way to fast track their careers, and things are going to get bloody. Watch your back, Matt Damon.”
Jessica says the jury loved Maps to the Stars because “It’s so relevant to what’s happening right now. There are jokes about the Golden Globes and the Oscars. There are a lot of jokes about celebrity culture and what you would do to be famous. It’s very relatable in a lot of ways, especially for people who are in theatre school.”
Cheryl adds, “I liked it because it was funny and the characters are really strong. It was a little surreal when I read it. I was like, ‘Does this actually happen? Do people actually do this?’ And then you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah.’ ”
Night B closes off by The Wolves by Ashleigh Hicks, which Jessica is co-directing with Grant Winfield. Jessica says, “The Wolves is a play that questions humanity and the way we judge and treat other people. It’s based on the scenario of if the human population one day split for some reason and evolved separately and then those two groups came together again, what would that do to people?… There are points that are fun, scary, and brutal. It’s pretty shocking. By the end when you figure out what is actually happening, it’s a little bit disturbing in some ways. It’s an ambitious play.”
Jessica adds The Wolves got the jury talking about their different perceptions of the story. “A lot of people thought it was about sexism. A lot of people thought it was about racism. Other people thought it was about gender identity issues. People thought it was about animal rights and that these creatures were actual wolves and then we all just agreed this play is about humanity and what is human? What defines you as a human?”
All performances are held in the Second Playing Space in the Timms Centre at the University of Alberta. Tickets for each evening are $15 for adults and $10 for students through Tix on the Square or at the door. There are separate tickets for Night A and Night B.