The Arkansas New Play Festival: Making a play for better theater

Robert Ford’s “Fault” from the 2015 Arkansas New Play Festival / Courtesy

Playwright and Arkansas Tech University theatre director David J. Eshelman gravitates toward the early albums from popular bands. Before the groups were famous, he reasons, there’s a raw energy.

He listens “for what it is, and what it could be.”

David J. Eshelman

Similarly, theater goers in Fayetteville and Bentonville will soon have the chance to see works in their nascent days. Except in this case, it will be a slate of American plays in various stages of development.

“We’re developing plays for the American theater,” said Bob Ford, artistic director and playwright in residence for TheatreSquared. “We’re assembling the best in theater, and then tearing apart the plays and putting them back together.”

One of those going through the construction and deconstruction process is a new work by Eshelman. His “A Little War in Little Rock” will see a live public audience for the first time when it comes to T2’s Arkansas New Play Festival for a staged reading on June 26. “A Little War in Little Rock,” a musical written in conjunction with folk musicians Charley Sandage and Charlie T. Crow, focuses on a little-discussed episode in Arkansas politics, the 1874 military-backed standoff between two men who simultaneously claimed to be governor.

Eshelman says the kind of feedback given in staged readings like those taking place from June 17-26 is critical to the development process.

“You’ve got to constantly watch it like you’re not involved. If you change one line, how does it affect what happens five pages later?”

What: Arkansas New Play Festival
When: June 17-26
Where: TheatreSquared in Fayetteville and
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville
Cost: $45 for an all-access pass; $10 for individual staged readings; $15-$25 for passes to “Andromeda”
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or

2016 ANPF Schedule

7 p.m. June 17 at Crystal Bridges – “Romeo and Juliet: Damascus,” a retelling of the Shakespearean classic set in Syria
2 p.m. June 18 at Crystal Bridges – “The Champion,” about a night jazz great Nina Simone spends trapped in North Carolina
4 p.m. June 18 at Crystal Bridges – “Tectonic Mélange,” an award-winning look at the North Dakota oil business
6:30 p.m. June 23 at TheatreSquared – Company reception
8 p.m. June 23 at TheatreSquared – “Romeo and Juliet: Damascus”
5:30 p.m. June 24 at TheatreSquared – “Tectonic Mélange”
8 p.m. June 24 at TheatreSquared – “Andromeda,” where two women vie for the same low-paying job at a planetarium
2 p.m. June 25 at TheatreSquared – “Andromeda”
5:30 p.m. June 25 at TheatreSquared – “The Champion”
8 p.m. June 25 at TheatreSquared – “Andromeda”
2 p.m. June 26 at TheatreSquared – “Andromeda”
4:30 p.m. June 26 at TheatreSquared – Young Playwright Showcase (free)
5:30 p.m. June 26 at TheatreSquared – “A War in Little Rock”

More than his own hopeful editing, an audience clues him in to the changes. Their laughter, confusion, emotion and other reactions tell him if changes need to be made. Eshelman will attend the screening of his play, and he’ll host a question-and-answer session following the show.

Fayetteville – and the Fayetteville audiences who support playwrighting workshops – have played an important part in developing new plays. TheatreSquared’s new play festival has been operating for seven years, and before it, works were vetted at the Mount Sequoyah New Play Retreat. And one of the works being staged this weekend is being written and developed in Fayetteville. “Romeo and Juliet: Damascus” updates Shakespeare’s work and places it in Syria. It’s being supported by a major grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

There’s a beauty in the discovery of ready-to-blossom works. Many of the works staged at TheatreSquared at previous New Play Festivals have gone on to full-scale productions on prominent stages. One of them, “The Dingdong,” came to last year’s New Play Fest and quickly moved to an off-Broadway production.

Not all of the works coming to Fayetteville or Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges, which will also host shows during the next two weeks, will make such a quick leap. Some likely need two or three more readings before completion.

“We’re really grilling the play to make it the best it can be,” Ford said.

And showing off some already excellent theater in the process.

TheatreSquared announces upcoming season of performances, many of them Arkansas debuts

As TheatreSquared is putting the wraps on its 2015-16 slate of shows, tickets are already being sold for next year’s run of events. Many of the shows featured in the 2016-17 season will be making their Arkansas debut when they are staged by TheatreSquared.

The shows are:

by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkken
Aug. 24 – Sept. 18, 2016

A political and personal drama about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man who had the challenge of replacing John F. Kennedy as president. He uses every trick he knows to pass the Civil Rights Act and attempting to secure an additional term. A team of 17 actors play some 40 characters, most of them historical figures. It’s the most actors ever used for a single T2 production, says Bob Ford, the company’s artistic director.

by Lauren Gunderson
Oct. 12-Nov. 6, 2016

This winner of the 2014 American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award finds Anthony in a frantic state as he shows up at the doorstep of his homebound classmate Caroline. Together, they must rush to complete a project on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and learn about what they have in common despite their differences.

by Charles Dickens
A world premiere stage adaptation Nov. 30, 2016 – New Year’s Day, 2017

Six actors portray more than 40 characters in this world-premiere stage adaptation of Dickens’ classic tale. The show is suitable for all ages.

by Lisa D’Amour
Feb. 1-26, 2017

Lisa D’Amour’s look at suburbia and economic frailty was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. Telling the tale of two members of the middle class whose lives change upon the arrival of new neighbors, “Detroit” also netted an Obie Award for best new play.

by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage
March 22-April 16, 2017

This show about a turn-of-the-century seamstress willing to risk everything she has to advance her position in life was named Best Off-Broadway Play by the Outer Critics Circle Awards, among other honors. The Chicago Tribune called it “A justly acclaimed, beautifully written and intensely personal play from a newly prominent African-American theatrical voice.”

A new adaptation by Mark Shanahan from Le Dindon by Georges Feydeau
May 10-June 4, 2017

This adaptation the classic French farce was developed in part at TheatreSquared’s 2015 Arkansas New Play Festival and quickly made the jump from Arkansas to the Pearl Theatre Company in New York City. It comes back to Fayetteville for a full stage adaptation of this fast-paced comedy.

June 15 – 24, 2017
Next year’s run of staged readings from a new crop of American plays returns to TheatreSquared in mid-June.

Tickets for the shows are on sale now and are available at the Walton Arts Center box office by calling 443-5600 or via Season ticket packages provide as much as a 20% discount over the single-ticket prices.

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