After 15 years, TheatreSquared’s Arkansas New Play Festival — a two-week event that brings playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, and actors together to workshop new plays — is going stronger than ever.
“In the last several seasons in particular, many of the plays featured at ANPF have gone on to major productions and award recognition,” said Dexter J. Singleton, T2’s director of new play development. “Including ‘At the Wedding’ by Bryna Turner, which opened at the Lincoln Center this Spring; ‘Weightless’ by the Kilbanes, which was nominated for for a Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award in its WP Theatre debut this season; ‘Russian Troll Farm’ by Sarah Gancher, a New York Times Critic’s Pick that received a 2023 Obie Award; and, now, ‘FLEX’ by Candrice Jones, opening at Lincoln Center this summer with an all star cast after co-premiering at T2 and being developed at ANPF a few summers ago.”
For Northwest Arkansas audiences, the biggest draw is that they might witness the birth of a show that becomes the toast of American theater by next season.
“My observation of audiences in Northwest Arkansas is that they’re very generous— very open and willing to receive the gift of the work,” said director, actor and educator vickie washington. Washington has directed three new projects at previous ANPFs — including “Responders”, by Joseph Scott Ford, which will receive a full production at T2 next season — but is here this year as an actor in Jonathan Norton’s “I Am Delivered’t”. “They are people who have come to the theater a lot, who have seen lots of different kinds of theater, and are willing to let it wash over them, willing to receive it.”
Singleton said in its 15th year, ANPF generates large quantities of submissions that he and artistic director/playwright Robert Ford cull through carefully, looking for the perfect blend of voices and new work.
“This is a diverse lineup of powerful, new, thought-provoking plays by a mix of established, well-known writers, as well as emerging writers and those newer to the field,” Singleton notes. “You can always say that you saw it at ANPF first. We’re one of the few new play festivals in the region and the only major one in the entire state of Arkansas. These talented writers are developing work at ANPF, right here in Fayetteville, that will premiere across the country in major theaters for years to come.”
T2’s ANPF format allows audiences to offer feedback following a performance. That feedback — as well as that of the director, actors and dramaturg in the room — sometimes has an impact on the development of the play.
It’s a tender, taut, collaborative process that bonds artists in a short period of time. We asked some of the collaborators to talk to us about their roles in the process.
Jonathan Norton – Playwright
Norton brings “I Am Delivered’t,” to ANPF, a “joyful new comedy that introduces theater audiences to the world of Church Usher Board culture and celebrates same gender loving church folk and the power and joy of being your authentic self.” His previous play, “Mississippi Goddamn,” was a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and won the 2016 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award presented by the American Theatre Critics Association.
“What I love about Jonathan’s writing is he gets you into the roller coaster, you get strapped in, and you go, and it’s not that he doesn’t let you get out—you don’t ever want to get out,” said vickie washington, who directed the first production of Norton’s “Mississippi Goddamn”. The two have known each other since Norton was an adolescent, performing in the Dallas Youth Choir. She was also present when Norton’s passion for playwriting caught fire—both were cast in a production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”. When he was offstage, Norton was scribbling scenes and monologues in the theater’s green room and enlisting his fellow actors into performing them.
“Vickie tells the story of the actors getting to a point where they would just start hiding,” said Norton with a laugh. “‘Hide! Run! I saw him in the Green Room, and he’s writing something!’”
Norton said the benefits of a program like the ANPF are plentiful for a playwright.
“Certainly, the large benefit is having the opportunity to spend more time with your play, to continue to develop it, to pull things apart, put them back together, maybe make a few mistakes along the way,” he said. “But you also have that opportunity to spend a concentrated amount of time, without any other worries or normal day- to-day stuff that you have to deal with back home. You’re completely focused on your work. And you have a group of collaborators who are also engaged in that process with you.”
For Norton, stakes are high: His play is already on the season schedule for a co-production between Dallas Theatre Company and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. Putting newly completed work before a group of collaborators can leave playwrights feeling vulnerable, said Norton.
“It can be very difficult—especially if you’re someone like me, a bit of a people pleaser. You just have so many different ideas coming at you. At one of the first workshops I ever did, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Because I was trying to incorporate any note, any question someone had rehearsal—I put it all in the play.
“What I’ve learned is to curate a conversation with your director and dramaturg in a certain kind of way—so that that conversation is supportive to the objectives that you have, right? It taught me to be very thoughtful about how you frame those conversations in the room, so that they will actually serve the things that you’re
trying to achieve.”
There’s another aspect of the workshop of which Norton feels particularly fond.
“One of the best things is, that as playwrights, we get to meet other playwrights,” he said. “We get to form relationships with other writers and learn more about what they do and how they do it. These are the opportunities that allow us to really connect with our peers.”
Iraisa Ann Reilly – Playwright
Reilly has, perhaps, the most adorable actor origin story ever: She first stepped in front of an audience when she was six, as assistant to her magician brother, then in the third grade. The duo hit the party circuit, performing for a fee, as well as for free at community events. Her desire to perform was later cemented when she got the part of Dorothy in her school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz”.
“I really do feel inherently introverted, and when I did ‘The Wizard of Oz’, I just felt like, ‘Oh, I can be this entirely different person,’” she said.
She was a senior in college when she wrote her first play, but writing took a backseat for several years as she followed a mentor’s advice to choose one talent over another, something she later realized was bad advice. Since then, she’s written a host of award-winning plays and a screenplay, and she is an adjunct professor of Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch. She also still appears onstage as an actor.
Her ANPF play, “Saturday Mourning Cartoons”, is the story of two siblings who have to make the difficult decision of whether to put their abuela in assisted living—and the family fallout that ensues.
“As a playwright, you’re in your own world, writing a play for so long by yourself,” she said. “Just bringing other people into it is important. And with this play, in particular, I’m waiting for people to say, ‘I don’t understand this about my character,’ but with this play it always starts with, ‘I lived through a situation like this.’ It’s rewarding for me because a lot of the play is me asking other people, ‘Does anybody else know what living through this situation is like?’ And the answer in the room has been, ‘Yes, I know that situation.’ To have that conversation, and the fact that it opens up our ability to talk about difficult things, is in and of itself informative to me that the play is working on a level that it should.”
Reilly’s work is personal—so personal, she said, that it can be difficult to move through the play workshop process.
“In earlier drafts—this hasn’t happened here—where [actors] talk about the protagonist, they say, ‘She’s nuts,’” she said. “And I say, ‘No, she’s not, she’s frustrated.’ Or, ‘She’s angry all the time.’ And I’m, like, ‘She’s really not.’ It’s really hard.
“But one of the smart things I did at the beginning of this process was to tell my director, ‘This play is really close to my heart, and there are things that are hard for me to hear.’ I’m really conscious of that now. Being honest about it with myself and with other people has been a game changer, because now people know how to ask a question or how to make a suggestion.”
Reilly said those observations and questions from the actors, director, and dramaturg have been instrumental in shaping her work.
“We literally rearranged the script the other day” based on suggestions and questions raised in rehearsal, she said. “And that’s when I realized—it was the shifting and moving things around that had to happen in order to meet my goals, rather than cutting and rewriting.”
Ken-Matt Martin – Director
Martin is a Little Rock native, returning to his home state after filling up his resume with impressive credits: He is a co-founder of Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, where he served as Executive Director until 2018. As a director, he has developed new plays at Vineyard Theatre, The Playwrights Center, Primary Stages, and Space at Ryder Farms. He has served as Associate Producer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and was recently appointed Interim Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage. He’s directing Rhiana Yazzie’s “Nancy”.
“I call this a Trojan horse play, because it has the iconic character Nancy Reagan in it, and she is funny and whip smart,” he said of Yazzie’s play. “But the play is actually about Esmeralda and her daughter, Jacqueline, two Navajo women who are navigating the world, navigating other native people in tribes, navigating the White House, and Nancy. What I love about it is that these two very different women are on two parallel tracks that collide at the end, which is the really exciting part about it.”
As director, Martin’s job is to help Yazzie coax the play that exists now into the play Yazzie ultimately wants it to be—a job he compares to that of a doula.
“There’s labor happening, and I need to facilitate and help make sure that everyone is breathing through that labor,” he explains. “Rihanna is here to birth this new play, and all of us are here to contribute to that process.”
It’s a process that can lead to vulnerability on the part of the playwright, Martin said, which requires one ingredient over all others: trust.
“There’s a quote that I love from Adrianne Maree Brown that says, ‘You can only move at the speed of trust,’” he notes. “I take that very seriously, and I allow that to be the thing that colors how I approach things with a playwright. I do a lot of community building, I do a lot of exercises and consensus building. I set group agreements: ’This is how we want to talk about things.’ By the time we actually start reading, and then actually talking about the play, everybody’s a little bit more relaxed and excited to kind of lean into the work and collaborate. “
Directing a new play workshop can be wildly different from directing an established play, and Martin acknowledges that the skill set required is different, as well.
“I think it takes someone who doesn’t have an ego, frankly, and is very collaborative,” he said. “It’s not about you, as a director; it’s about what the writer needs to hear. You have to be very generous. The big rule I always say is, ‘I’m not interested in your ego or mine, the best idea wins.’ Being able to go in there with a true clean, open heart and ability to be flexible is what’s key for a director and for actors at this point in the new play process.”
Robert Barry Fleming – Director
Fleming comes to Fayetteville by way of the esteemed Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, where he is the Executive Artistic Director. That theater is host to the Humana Festival, one of the most well-respected, well-known new play development programs in the world. Between that and his experiences as Director of Artistic Programming at Arena Stage, Fleming has ushered a wealth of new plays onto the national stage—including the Best Musical Tony Award-winner “Dear Evan Hansen”.
“It’s an opportunity to investigate another world that is both familiar and also uncharted,” said Fleming of assisting in developing new works. “That’s the thing about new plays—it’s always a new experience, because every voice is unique. And to work on a project like ‘I Am ‘Delivered’t’, with a writer like Jonathan Norton, who is so profound in his observations about human nature—[he writes] rich, culturally specific worlds that have an alchemy when actors’ voices are put to his text. It’s really life affirming.”
Creating a collaborative space and encouraging a positive work environment are both key to protecting the playwright and their work, he said.
“I think a lot of it is being intentional about finding a ‘glass half full’ orientation to everything that comes up,” he observes. “And I think that’s a great way to move through life. Like: Everything’s perfect. Everything’s exactly where it’s supposed to be in its process. And if this part of the play seems murky, it’s, ‘Oh, how exciting that we still have more to find out here,’ as opposed to, ‘I just don’t know how to make this work.’”
vickie washington – Actor
Actor/director/educator vickie washington has become a trusted collaborator at T2: She’s directed the full productions “School Girls: or the African Mean Girls Play” and “The Mountaintop”. This year marks the fourth time she’s participated in the Arkansas New Play Festival. One thing is different this year: Instead of directing, she’s acting—in her former student Jonathan Norton’s play, “I Am Delivered’t”. Norton, who washington has called “a bold new voice”, chose washington as the director for his first student play, as well as his first production of the award winning play “Mississippi Goddamn”.
The most exciting part of the new play development process, said washington, is also the most obvious: the presence of the playwright in the rehearsal room.
“You have the benefit of their knowledge, their wisdom, their insight, their questions,” she notes. “One of the things that I love about theater is the opportunity to investigate, and to dig and dig and dig and discover. And you get to do that all together. Though I love the canon of published pieces and the masters and the classics, there are more stories to be told all the time. New plays do that.”
Washington veers away from the birth metaphors and chooses something a little more culinary to describe the relationship of those present in the rehearsal room.
“You’re at the dinner table, and the playwright serves the food, and you taste, and you’re like, ‘Well, it’s a little salty. Could we use a little more seasoning here?’ It feels like that.”.
As a director at ANPF, said washington, the audiences have been incredibly important in determining whether a staged piece is connecting or not.
“I watch the way something lands in the room. I watch the audience to see what they’re getting, what’s not happening, what is, and if you can feel—’Are they going? Are they getting in the car with you and going on the ride that you’re having?’”
Mike Thomas – Actor
As an actor, director, playwright and educator, Thomas is a veritable Renaissance man of the theater. An original member of the acting company for the Mt. Sequoyah New Play Retreat—the precursor to ANPF that began over three decades ago—Thomas has become an expert at collaborating with playwrights on their new work.
“There’s something interesting that happens when you’ve got the playwright in the room,” he said about the thrill of the work. “It’s a chemical reaction. In a new play, nobody else has played this part yet. Nobody else has read it out loud—the playwright may have written these pages just last night. Nobody else has had a chance to put their spin on it. There’s something very liberating about that to an actor. The playwrights want you to experiment and push it, and I take bigger risks as an actor, which is a great learning experience for the actor because you feel safe to do so.”
As an observer to the process for decades, Thomas catches all the nuances of the relationships in the room—like the choices that need to be made when a scene just isn’t landing.
“It’s interesting to watch the director: Are they going to turn to the playwright and say, ‘You need to fix this’? Or will they look at the actor and say, ‘Okay, guys, what’s wrong here? What’s not working? Let’s try this again.’ Which way? Will they start with the playwright or with the actor?”
Thomas said it’s an actor’s job within an ANPF rehearsal room to offer performance choices with care.
“I use this analogy: A playwright has said, ‘Okay, here’s my, my child. Could you walk them across this bridge? I want to see the journey and what happens on the other side, and I’m trusting you with my words.’ So you don’t just go in there and take big risks that will seem silly or outrageous or anything, because these are somebody’s words—somebody put their personal feelings and emotions and thoughts into this. You also want to do service to the playwright; you want to serve them correctly.”
The result of “serving them correctly”, said Thomas, is one of the biggest joys of the work.
“Those little breakthrough moments that happen in these short two weeks, where new words are brought in to an actor that’s been working on this character, and, all of a sudden, the playwright gives them something to say that is a big reveal, or a revelation for that character. And the actor breaks down, and the playwright breaks down, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it worked!’ All those little variables sometimes come together, and you see this beautiful seedling, this birth of something that’s about to happen. As exploratory as it is, it’s also very fragile.
“It’s a process like no other than I’ve ever been involved with,” he continues. “To work with a group of people that are serving a playwright, to create a piece of art that’s going to go out there in the world and affect people and change people’s DNA in some way—and you had a moment with that script that’s being developed. And you just hope they continue to carry it on. Everybody is so supportive and so nice. We’re all here to serve and help that playwright create exactly what they want.”