For fourteen years now, TheatreSquared’s Arkansas New Play Festival has been introducing groundbreaking new work to the Northwest Arkansas community, all with the promise of becoming the next big thing in theater. And many, like Bryna Turner’s “At the Wedding” — which opened at New York’s Lincoln Center this year to rousing reviews — have already fulfilled that promise. For Northwest Arkansas audiences, the thrill of knowing they witnessed the birth of a hit stage play is profound. For T2’s Director of New Plays Dexter J. Singleton, the festival is exciting on a separate level, as well; it was his first connection to T2 when, in 2018, he directed Austin Ashford’s “Black Book” and Russell Sharman’s “Among the Western Dinka” for ANPF.
“I always loved working at TheatreSquared, and I really enjoyed the relationship that I had with [Artistic Director] Bob [Ford] and [Executive Director/Producer] Martin [Miller],” said Singleton. “The theater was looking to expand its development, especially with Bob being a playwright, with us receiving submissions, and then having the festival — but that was really the extent of our literary department at T2. I work on a lot of new plays, I’ve been doing that for a lot of years, and that’s been a big part of my career. I’ve made relationships with different playwrights, different artistic leaders, I’ve directed a lot of places and worked with a lot of different people — so it was a good fit to be able to come to TheatreSquared and to help grow that department.”
One of Singleton’s primary goals in his role, he said, is to “look at ways where TheatreSquared can be even more of a centralized hub for new work, not only for the South and Midwest, but for the entire nation” — a role particularly important, he said, in the vacuum left by the shuttering of high-profile play development organizations like the Lark Play Development Center and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, and the uncertain future of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
“You have three giant, epic new play development programs that no longer exist that have put out dozens and dozens of works, that have worked with hundreds and hundreds of artists, that have had a global impact,” he points out. “And now those programs are no longer — and so it really creates a spot where the Arkansas New Play Festival and T2’s work in new play development can have an even greater reach, because there’s a greater need for playwrights to get their work developed, to have their world premiere, to have an opportunity to have a place to grow and write and create.”
“New play development is absolutely important since it provides a multitude of opportunities for not only playwrights, but directors, actors, designers, and producers,” said playwright Candrice Jones. Her play “FLEX” was workshopped at last year’s ANPF and is receiving a full production at T2 now through July 17, as well as productions in Atlanta and Oregon later this summer. “Each group of individuals I’ve listed gain professional maturity in the new play development process. If there are no theaters and programs that push new work, then those voices, the playwrights and all others I listed, will not get heard.”
The Arkansas New Play Festival performance dates are July 16-17 at the Momentary and July 23-24 at TheatreSquared.Tickets are $10 per performance or $50 for an all inclusive pass that includes special receptions with the artists. Visit arkansasnewplayfest.com for more information about the four plays featured and to purchase tickets.
“Writing a new play is like developing a recipe,” said Turner, whose “At the Wedding” received rave reviews in its New York debut. “You can fiddle with it on paper as much as you want, but you won’t know what you’re making until you actually put the ingredients together. Development opportunities allow you to taste your creation as you work on it. This is how you discover what the play is, how the play works, and what the play needs to get better. Without development opportunities like ANPF, we would only have bland plays in the world. Artists need time and space to try out bigger and bolder ideas—time to make a real mess before finding something that works.”
Playwrights participating in ANPF have two weeks in a rehearsal room with actors, a director, and a dramaturg. At the end of week one, a staged reading is performed, followed by a chance for the audience to give feedback post-performance. The artistic team goes back into the rehearsal room for another week, then performs one final time the following weekend. The process allows playwrights to hear their play read out loud both in rehearsal and performance; to study how an audience reacts to it; and to incorporate feedback from the artistic team and the audience to develop a revised product at the end of the two weeks.
“A lot of the festivals, the play might only premiere once, or it might just be a short couple of days that are kind of chunked into the same weekend,” said Singleton. “To be able to work in the room, do a reading, and then go back into the room do another week of tweaking and developmental work, and then have a second reading—that second weekend is really what sets this festival apart from many others.”
Singleton said another secret ingredient responsible for ANPF’s success are the Northwest Arkansas’ audiences.
“The way Bob and Martin have cultivated the audiences here at T2 is so unique — they’re along for the ride with the New Play Festival. They’re open, whether a play is from a brand new playwright they’ve never heard of or one who has a ton of accolades. Whether a first act of a play or a full draft of a play, whatever level that play is at, the ANPF audiences have always been open to it, because they really enjoy the process of seeing a new play developed and being the first ones to get a look. So that one day, they can say, ‘Remember when this premiered at T2, and now it’s in New York?’”
For Singleton, the desire to foster and nurture new work is in his blood. His grandfather was one of the first Black entrepreneurs in Detroit who owned a dry cleaning business in the neighborhood called Black Bottom. His father later took over the business.
“Eventually, the neighborhood was razed, and a freeway was put there—I-375 ran right through it, and really wiped out that neighborhood of Black businessmen and women who were really successful at that time in Detroit,” he said. “ So I come from a long line of Black entrepreneurs, and part of [the attraction] is starting something new and rolling up your sleeves and wanting to create something from an idea that’s super exciting. When someone can discuss something, and then we can take that idea from an idea, manifest that by speaking on it, and then ultimately be able to see that through to where it becomes something in the end—it becomes a play that people can come and check out and, hopefully, feel and discover what that writer was really trying to express. I love that process of creation, like an entrepreneur, because of my bloodline.”
Singleton’s conversation is peppered with the word “relationship”: Forming them is a big part of his job. Perhaps the most important relationships he forms are those with playwrights who bring their new work to ANPF.
“As a playwright myself, I know that a new play—a new idea—it’s your baby,” he said. “And you don’t trust just anybody with your baby. It has to be somebody who you know is going to care for them, nurture them, raise them as their own. That’s important. So I understand that, always, when working with writers, this is an idea that they hold close to their heart, and, a lot of times, it comes from a very personal place—many writers write about their own lives, their childhood, their relationships with others. So it’s something that’s very vulnerable to them, and you have to handle it with great care. As a new play developer, I try to make sure that the playwright is happy with the work that they have. I don’t want to try to make their play my play or try to dictate to them too much. I want to ask questions and walk that journey with them in the discovery of, ‘What is the best version of this play?’
“My career in the theater is being able to work with people who are really great people, really great artists, really great humans that have something to say, who are socially conscious, who have kind hearts, and really want their work to impact on another level. I really try to get at the sense of what the artist wants the community impact of the play to be. I think sometimes theaters focus a little bit too much on, ‘How can it impact our audiences? How can it sell tickets?’ The playwright wrote it, and it was on their heart for a reason. A lot of times, it wasn’t on their heart to solely create this great piece of art—a lot of times it was on their heart to communicate something that was in their soul. And that’s the most important thing.”
In the end, said Singleton, new play development is one of the most optimistic corners of the theater world: a process of looking towards the future instead of solely regurgitating the past.
“I think that we have to invest more in the playwrights that are living than the playwrights of the past,” he said. “A friend of mine said a long time ago that if we’re producing more dead playwrights than living, what are we saying? I think that we have to show love to and get the work produced for and commit to living writers because the dead writers don’t need the money. They don’t need the accolades. We need to invest in people that are living—and I love stories that are influencing the generations out there today. That’s important.”