Emerging playwrights take ten at Theater Masters 2015 festival

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Aspen native Naomi McDougall Jones in the play "Nona Who Swallowed a Bird," at a previous outing of Theater Master's "Take Ten."
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Take Ten, presented by Theater Masters

When: Sunday, Feb. 1 – Tuesday, Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Aspen High School Black Box Theater

Cost: $25, $12 for students

Tickets and more info:

What: “Social Responsibility: The Role of the Storyteller in Today’s Society”

When: Saturday, Jan. 31, 5 p.m.

Where: Koch Building, Aspen Institute

Cost: Free

Tony-nominated actress Kathleen Chalfant has a bit of tough-love advice for aspiring playwrights and actors: “If you can do anything else, do it.”

The acclaimed actress of stage and screen will be in Aspen this weekend for Theater Masters’ National MFA Playwrights Festival and Aspiring Playwrights Competition. The annual festival stages short plays by writers from leading U.S. graduate schools and by local students, putting their work in the hands of professional directors and producers.

Chalfant, this year, selected the winning plays along with Primary Stages artistic director Andrew Leynse. She was impressed by the caliber of the plays. But, she said, she reminds emerging playwrights and actors of the hard road ahead of them in the industry.

“Unless you have a real passion for the theater and a fairly thick skin, it is a difficult and often heartbreaking profession,” she said. “On the other hand, when you get the chance to do it, there is nothing better.”

Some who’ve had the chance to stage their work at Theater Masters’ annual program have gone on to success in the world of drama. Among the students whose work has been showcased by Theater Masters are Michael Mitnick, whose subsequent credits include writing the screen adaptation of “The Giver” and who is now writing the book for the new “Animal House” musical. Alexander Maggio went on to write for the acclaimed television shows “Homeland” and “Madam Secretary.” And Aspen’s own Naomi McDougall Jones, who won the Theater Masters high school contest 10 years ago, wrote and starred in the 2014 film “Imagine I’m Beautiful.”

Jones is also now Theater Masters’ associate artistic and managing director. On Monday, she was gathered around the kitchen table in Theater Masters founder Julia Hansen’s Durant Avenue home, which is the behind-the-scenes headquarters of this weekend’s festivities.

This year’s events began last weekend with a free Theater Masters playwriting workshop. It brought out writers from younger than 10 to older than 60 and people who had never written a play alongside others who’d shopped screenplays. On Saturday, Theater Masters hosts a free panel discussion at the Aspen Institute on the social responsibility of storytellers. And on Sunday, the main event begins, with three nights of 10-minute plays in “Take Ten” at the Aspen High School Black Box Theatre.

The short productions include eight plays by graduate students from programs at Columbia, Fordham, the University of Iowa and Yale, among other leading schools, directed by theater professionals and acted by a cast of 32 local performers.

“Normally you feel fortunate to find one or two, maybe three really good pieces of writing,” Chalfant said of writing contests, “but in this group it was hard to narrow down the submissions to the proper number of finalists since there were so many good plays.”

Locals from Aspen, Basalt and Glenwood Springs high schools also have short plays in the mix, by Kristin Hopkins, Brooklyn Paige Koski and Rorey Freeman.

Director Joseph Ward said he was impressed by the depth of the high school plays, which include a creative take on fairy tale princesses and one about a man given the chance to call his deceased wife on the phone and have one last conversation.

The eight plays by graduate students include one by Paula Vesala, a pop star from Finland who is pursuing playwriting at UCLA, and one about a woman’s first Brazilian wax.

After they’re staged here, the plays go to New York for a spring showcase. There are few similar programs available that bring together student playwrights with theater professionals to stage original work. Many students, Jones noted, form relationships through “Take Ten” that continue through their careers.

“It’s like the Goldman Sachs training program for theater,” said Hansen, who ran the New York Drama League before founding Theater Masters.

“So much of this business is about relationships,” Holt added. “Julia has a gift for connecting people and helping form those relationships.”