The Northern Writes New Play Festival, now in its fifth year at Penobscot Theatre, was the brainchild of Scott R.C. and Joye Cook-Levy, formerly the producing artistic director and education and outreach director for the theater, respectively. When the couple left their positions at PTC in late May, however, they knew they had to leave the annual celebration of new works in capable hands.
Jasmine Ireland, PTC’s interim education and outreach director after Cook-Levy left, was the woman into whose hands the festival fell. A few weeks before Cook-Levy left Bangor for Colorado Springs, she named Ireland the coordinator for the event and plopped the 21 chosen scripts into her lap.
“I read them all really quickly. It was a lot to digest,” said Ireland, who most recently directed plays and musicals for the Ellsworth school department. “It’s been an interesting process of fusing what she’s done with it for all these years with my approach. I took it on as a ‘sure, I can help’ kind of thing, and now it’s become my baby.”
Northern Writes this year boasts a more eclectic selection of plays than ever before, with more than 50 submissions to choose from. They include submissions from all over the country and a few international selections as well. The final 21 reflect the current economic and social climate, Ireland feels.
“My favorite thing about it is how many points of view from all across the board are represented this year,” said Ireland. “The material reflects the social climate. There’s a lot about financial problems, a lot about technology and how people relate to it, a lot about illness and big, big ideas and concepts. There’s much less kind of interior, relationship stuff. There’s a lot of relevance this year.”
Some of those culturally relevant plays include “Cold Storage,” a farce by Orono native and University of Maine graduate Dustin Sleight, that pokes fun at our short attention spans and growing reliance on new technologies. “Dark Matter,” by New Yorker August Schulenburg, details the life of a physicist named Maxine who is trying to understand both the universe at large and her own, inner universe. New York native Craig Thornton’s “The High Cost of Heating” is an absurdist play in the tradition of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco, set in an archetypal middle-class American home where archetypal husband and wife suddenly are presented with a heating bill that becomes a monster, literally taking over the house.
“‘The High Cost of Heating’ is something that’s totally unique that you will not see anywhere else, I promise,” said Ireland. “There are some really wonderful plays this year. [Alabama native] Joe Musso has had a play in every year of the festival, and the one he’s got this year, ‘Conk and Bone’ is kind of a mixture of modern dark comedy and Greek mythology. It’s just great.”
Friday, July 1, brings an evening entirely of Maine short plays, including “Dark and Stormy Night,” “Microbrew” and “Kansas City, This Is Former Air Force One” by Vinalhaven native Chris Orcutt; “Beaching” by Orrington novelist Bruce Pratt; “Nine Inning” by Bangor journalist and frequent PTC actor Allen Adams; “Parents For Pick Up” by Mark Upton, also of Bangor and “Liferaft” by PTC technical director Andrew Frodahl. The evening will kick off with the premiere of a 10-minute play written by PTC’s high school-aged advanced acting class students, who will spend the night prior to the show in the Opera House writing their play.
Northern Writes is the only professionally produced play festival in Maine and offers audiences the rare opportunity to see brand-new, often cutting-edge theater in a casual, stripped-down setting — and for only $5 a show or $35 for an all-festival pass. There are no costumes or sets, and actors rehearse just once before the staged reading. Longtime PTC actors and collaborators such as Arthur Morison, Ron and Julie Lisnet, Marcia Douglas, Gibran Graham and Colin Graebert all will take part in performances.
“I think the festival has kind of come into its own in recent years,” said Ireland. “Last year’s audience favorite play is now in the main season in 2012 [‘Ink,’ by Alice Van Buren]. The festival has definitely become a hugely important part of Penobscot.”
According to Ireland, the next chapter of PTC will come later in 2011, when the positions vacated by the Levys are filled. She feels very confident that things will only get better.
“The thing that struck me immediately, even after a short amount of time actually working in the Opera House, is just how much everyone in that building cares about the future of PTC,” said Ireland. “You can tell right away just how much they all have invested in it. They love theater as an art form, and they are truly devoted to the organization. It’s really exciting.”
The Northern Writes New Play Festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, with a performance of “Waiting for Boudreaux” by Warren Holleman, preceded by a special 6 p.m. Story Slam event organized by Story Slam Bangor. It continues nightly (no show on Monday, June 27) through Saturday, July 2, with a 7 p.m. performance of Jason Rainey’s “Gods and Idols.” For a full schedule of plays, visit penobscottheatre.org.