Saturday, April 16, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 3 - Cool Times

After the thunderstorms swept through Independence on Thursday night, the weather turned cold, windy, and rainy. It did not, however, put a damper on the festival.

Friday morning for me began with a discussion of Inge's relationship with the press and drama critics, always a dicey area for playwrights, and for Inge in particular. For some reason he was viewed by several critics as lucky; he seemingly came out of nowhere in 1952 to conquer Broadway with four hit plays in a row and elbow his way into the stratosphere of American theatre next to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Of course, he was not an overnight sensation; his ascendancy had been a long and winding trip, including stints teaching and other occupations and even spending a couple of years as the critic at large for a St. Louis newspaper. His first play, Come Back, Little Sheba, had taken years to get into shape and had endured a lot of rejection before getting to the stage. The same thing happened with Picnic, and when it finally made it to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it had been through a lot, including a stormy relationship with the director, Joshua Logan, and the version of the play that we've come to know was despised by the author, who felt that he was bullied into making the play have a "happy ending."

It would be inevitable that Inge -- like his fellow playwrights of the era -- would hit the wall and produce unsuccessful plays. For some, they accepted this with a begrudging awareness that they have done their best work. But for Inge, the combination of flops and his internal demons of addiction and repression became too much and he committed suicide in 1973. The common practice -- especially with Inge -- is to blame the critics for sneering at his works as dated and sentimental. But it was more than just rejection by the press; it was Inge's own inability to believe in himself and shrug off the critics. It's not easy to do, but he seemed to let it -- along with his own demons -- lead him to the end. And it was a terrible loss.

Friday afternoon I presented my paper for the scholar's conference; "Plain Speaking - The Voices of William Inge". I examined Inge's use of everyday dialogue and the sometimes clumsy way his characters speak as the reflection of the true heart and soul of the characters, and how Inge often used the silences between the characters as powerful moments in his plays. It forces the actors to examine their roles with more precision and care, and to listen carefully to what the other characters are saying.

Last night was the gala dinner with performances by Elizabeth Wilson, Sheldon Harnick, Daisy Egan (the youngest person ever to win a Tony for her performance in The Secret Garden), and reminiscences of the last 30 years of Inge Festivals. I'm glad I've been here for twenty of them.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 2 - Another Opn'n', Another Show

The 2011 William Inge Theatre Festival kicked off Wednesday night with a wonderful concert performance of A Doctor In Spite of Himself, a musical version of the play by Moliere. The entire production -- music, books, and lyrics -- were written by Sheldon Harnick, who, with the late Jerry Bock, gave us such theatre legends as Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, and The Rothschilds. With a cast made up of local talent and guest artists John Schuck and Alan Safier, it was a delightful evening of great music and Moliere's humor and satire.

Today we had workshops and classes, including session on acting and auditioning for local high school students taught by working actors from New York and Los Angeles, including Barbara Dana, and a look at the critics process as envisioned by Dan Sullivan, the former drama critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Tonight we had a staged reading Horsedreams by Dael Orlandersmith, winner of the New Voices award presented annually by the Inge Festival. It was a collection of monologues; an interesting approach to theatre and not exactly what I envision a play to be. However, there were some interesting characters, and I think the play -- if I can call it that -- has some potential if it can overcome the limitation of having the characters address the audience and rarely interact with each other.

And on a purely shameless self-promotion note, copies of Can't Live Without You are selling.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 1 - Welcome to Independence

Greetings from Independence, Kansas, home of the 30th annual William Inge Festival. This is my 20th trip here, starting in 1991, when Edward Albee was the guest of honor, and I've only missed one -- 2002 when I was directing a production of Grease (and would have been far happier to be here than doing that).

The flight from Albuquerque to Dallas and then on to Tulsa were uneventful (except for a child two rows behind me who was working her banshee audition), and the weather here is beautiful; clear and warm, and so likely to be for the rest of the week.

My first stop was at the William Inge Theatre on the campus of Independence Community College, which is the the host of the festival. There I dropped off the supply of Can't Live Without You scripts (on sale for the incredibly low price of $10) and greeting old friends. Tonight will be a performance of a new musical by Sheldon Harnick (Inge honoree in 2007), A Doctor In Spite of Himself.

Tomorrow begins the workshops and sessions with actors and guests. My big moment is Friday when I am at the Scholar's Conference.