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Playwriting students taking national stage

January 22, 2009

ASU’s graduate student playwrights – and at least one undergraduate – are making waves and it looks like the tide is about to come in for them.

Dan Frey is one of just seven of 89 playwrights invited to take his play, “Don Coyote,” which debuted at ASU last fall, to the Region 8 Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival at California State University, Fullerton, next month.

First-year MFA playwright Asher Bowles was invited to present a 10-minute play in the same regional event.

Another first-year MFA playwright, Christian Krauspe, also is a finalist in the Kennedy Center competition, but in Region 5. His alma mater, Western Illinois University, produced his play, “Dearborn Americana,” which was picked for the festival.

Finally, Bill Alewyn, an undergraduate student, won the college national playwriting competition sponsored by the Wichita State University with his play, “Gedenken,” and it's also competing in ACTF, but in Region 3.

How did ASU’s Herberger College School of Theatre and Film manage to produce so many winners this year?

“A lot of it has to do with creating a climate for inspiration,” said Guillermo Reyes, an associate professor and director of ASU’s playwriting program.

“What motivates them to write – tapping into that is really challenging. The best writing comes from the heart, but not everyone accesses that. It is personal.”

Reyes, who also has enjoyed a stellar career as a playwright, said that every class in playwriting is different, and every student is different. By offering a variety of opportunities, such as writing short plays and having readings and live productions, each will find something that sparks his or her creativity.

The students also collaborate with Playwrights on Campus, an organization that helps them develop their work.

The most crucial thing for a young playwright, Reyes said, is “seeing the play done on stage, with actors. That’s important for completion. Hopefully, the audience will like the play.”

Will there come a time when live theater gives way to Web-based drama, and playhouses shut their doors?

Reyes doesn’t think so. But “playwriting is in competition with modern technologies,” he said, “and playwrights are beginning to incorporate visual media into their work.”

Many students already have posted their work on YouTube, and already are thinking about audiences beyond campus, Reyes said.

“But they are definitely interested in writing for live audiences. Theater is still an exciting form of writing. It creates a living experience. Live theater has been around for a very long time. It will be enriched, but it will not go away.”

For the Fullerton festival, ASU will pack up all the sets from Frey’s play, which was presented in the Festival of New Work, and take a contingent of 12 people, including the actors, director and stage manager to California.

Winners from the regional festivals will go to the finals at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival.

Frey, who grew up in Phoenix, studied film at USC. “But I found out that a lot of the work in film was not what I wanted to do.

“Then I discovered Brand New Theater at USC. At first I auditioned to act – and to be near a girl. The next semester I wrote a play and they produced it.”

The idea for “Don Coyote” came from a conversation about immigration between his uncle and grandfather, who had opposing viewpoints. “They were talking about it but not really talking to each other,” Frey said.

In “Don Coyote,” an American and a Mexican coyote run a successful human-smuggling business at the Arizona-Mexico border. But a car accident, a brutal killing and a beautiful young woman named Rosa threaten to unravel the fabric of their partnership.

Frey said he made a lot of changes in the play after the first week of rehearsal. “A lot of it was streamlining. There was dialogue that I thought was clever, but it didn’t add anything.

“The play is a little bit of mystery. I had to strike a balance about how much to give away how soon.”

Frey believes that it’s “incredibly important” for playwrights to have acted on stage. “You get a sense of the actors and what they need from you as a writer.”

Should any of the ASU graduate students win at the regional level, they will receive a cash prize of at least $1,000, a measure of prestige – and “a lot of bragging rights,” Reyes said.