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Rolling River Playwrights Collective puts up "Plays in Progress" at The Rep 

With lightly staged readings of new works by local talent.

click to enlarge CONNECTING WITH LOCAL TALENT: That's one of the reasons The Rep is working with the Rolling River Playwrights Collective, according to Anna Kimmel, the theater's director of education. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • CONNECTING WITH LOCAL TALENT: That's one of the reasons The Rep is working with the Rolling River Playwrights Collective, according to Anna Kimmel, the theater's director of education.

Plays in progress

This October, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre will launch its pilot series "Plays In Progress," featuring lightly staged readings of new works by the Rolling River Playwrights Collective. Scripts by local playwrights Judy Goss, John Haman and Werner Trieschmann will be presented in The Rep's Annex Black Box at 518 Main St. with feedback sessions following each reading.

The Rolling River Playwrights Collective was formed by Goss, Haman and Trieschmann as a way for the three authors to connect, share new work and receive helpful edits and feedback on projects. Anna Kimmell, The Rep's director of education, said the Collective approached her after attending a listening session The Rep hosted with members of the Little Rock theater community after The Rep suspended operations earlier this year. The collective wanted to help The Rep move forward through its financial instability and uncertain future. From those conversations, the Plays In Progress series was born.

(After suspending operations in April because of funding troubles, The Rep announced in September that it had raised almost $700,000, which was matched by the John and Robyn Horn Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation. The theater's board continues to seek $1.2 million to help The Rep rebuild, but the show will go on: The theater's 2019 mainstage season will be announced Nov. 13.)

"It's not only an opportunity for these playwrights to test out their new work," Kimmell said. "It's also an opportunity for The Rep to engage new talent, local talent and also our audiences as a part of the process. It's really helpful for a playwright to hear their plays read out loud. It's on their brains, and it's on the page, but the opportunities for adjustment and discoveries when a group of actors read it out loud, and the opportunity for feedback from the audience, is really cool."

While ticket sales from the Plays In Progress series will benefit The Rep's efforts to move forward with operations, the series also signifies how the theater wants to prioritize connection with the Arkansas theater community.

"Developing local talent has really been a part of our mission since the beginning. ... It's been a part of the foundation of The Rep, that we're giving artists a space to grow and to learn and to practice their craft, whether that's on stage or in design work or through internships or mentorships, or whether that's in the classroom," Kimmell said. "When we have these community feedback sessions, it seems like we've kind of lost that connection to our local artists and generally to community — not completely lost it, but that seems to be the perception. ... I think that programs like Plays In Progress can really help bridge that gap and can give not just our community opportunities, but also The Rep opportunities for creating those really meaningful connections again."

The readings will provide audiences with a stripped-down look at a crucial beginning step in the playwriting process. Actors will have scripts in hand, as only a day of rehearsal will precede the readings. With no sets, costumes or technical directing, and little distance between audience and actors on the Black Box stage, the intimate readings will allow each playwright to see how audiences engage with their works.

As a comedy writer, Trieschmann said the opportunity to have his work read or staged is an important one. "Playwrights should be junkies for information about what they're doing, because writing plays is a collaborative thing," he said. "I always want to know what people are seeing in something that I've written."

Trieschmann, whose plays have been staged and produced all over the country and in England, Italy and Romania, also worked as an editor and a columnist for the Little Rock Free Press and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 18 years. His new work, "Unemployed," "Unemployment," is a financial farce that centers on a married couple trying (and failing) to navigate their suburban, post-recession world. "It's important because the idea of economic stability is very unstable," he said. "There's also the idea of the well-off suburban life that so many people chase. ... I think we've figured out in the recession that it's a really shaky premise, and it's a premise that ends up costing us a lot because [of] our idea of wealth and what we have to have."

Haman, who lives on a homestead with dairy goats, chickens and bees, has written six full-length, one-act and short plays in the last year that have been staged and produced by high school and adult theater groups. He's a wealth management adviser for Northwestern Mutual in Little Rock by day and a former reporter for the Arkansas Times. He also said that having his script read and acted before an audience allows him to observe how his words affect people in real time.

"It's the process of sanding away the splinters so you've got a smooth experience. In an intimate audience like this one is going to be, you can hear in the way people breathe, whether they're feeling the beats in your writing or not, whether they're following you, whether they're shocked or dismayed," he said. "Ninety-five percent of what you need, you can hear from the audience, and you can't hear it without the audience. It's a big step up from actors reading things at a table."

Haman said his new play, "Blood Moon," is "an alternate-reality sci-fi mystery play that will be unlike anything you've ever seen." Conceptualized while one of Haman's goats gave birth, the story is set in an alternate version of 1959 in which Project Horizon, the real U.S. military plan to build a manned U.S. base on the moon before the Soviets did, actually came to fruition. The central character, June, is the wife of a Project Horizon aeronaut. As she grapples with her diminishing identity, she falls in with a group of Soviet spies.

"What I've done is created an alternate reality story where a woman creates her own alternate reality within that story," Haman said. "That's really what I was going for — a story about a person who decides to change their reality in order to live a different and more exciting life. And it just happens to be that I've ripped history apart in some interesting ways to make it possible."

Goss taught theater at Parkview Arts & Magnet High School for 17 years, and she recently adapted "A Christmas Carol" from Charles Dickens' novel for the Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock, where the production will be annually produced through 2021. Her new drama, "Life Science," takes place during history that did actually occur, right here in Little Rock, during the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education trial. She lived in Little Rock at the time and knew the judge who presided over the case, the late Judge William Overton, who worked at her husband's law firm before he became a judge. The play explores the nuanced relationships between parents and children during debate over the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act, which mandated the teaching of creation science in Arkansas public schools.

"The heart of this is parents and young people," Goss said. "If you think of evolution in biology... that is one thing. What is it for people to become individuals? Do you have to break away from your parents? How can your parents influence your beliefs, your strengths? How can they protect you?"

The Plays In Progress series opens at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, with Trieschmann's "Unemployed."  "Unemployment." Goss's "Life Science" opens 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, and Haman's "Blood Moon" completes the series at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. All of the readings contain adult content. Seating is limited and tickets are available online at therep.org.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed the title of Trieschmann's work as "Unemployed." The correct title is "Unemployment."

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