Stage readings of finalists in the 2016 Emerging Playwright Awards take place this weekend

The public is once again invited to a special set of events taking place this weekend at Dowagiac’s Beckwith Theatre Company, as the community theater and the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival host stage readings for the third annual Emerging Playwright Awards.

Once again, a trio of students from the University of Michigan’s theater program comprises the roster of finalists for this year’s competition — including two who have made the top three in previous years. The three finalists will have their scripts read on stage at the local theater this weekend, with the public invited to watch and provide their feedback on each play.

There is no cost to attend.

The top finalists were selected from a pool of scripts submitted to the contest from young playwrights, age 18-30, living or studying in Michigan and northern Indiana. A panel of judges whittled the field down to the top three — the scripts were read “blind,” meaning the judges did not have any information about each play’s author during the screening process.

The finalists will compete for $2,750 in prize money, the largest sum yet in the competition’s three-year history. The first-place winner will receive the Don and Dorothy Frantz Memorial Award, worth $1,500; second-place the Karen Pugh Memorial Award, worth $500; and third-place the Warren and Lillian Walshleger Memorial Award, worth $250.

The winners will be selected based off a vote from the panel of judges as well from feedback from audiences who attend this weekend’s readings.

The winning script will be featured in another staged reading at Beckwith during the Dogwood festival, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 9. That event will also be free.

The finalists in this year’s competition are:

 

Larissa Marten, “I Killed the Cow”

7:30 p.m. Friday

Larissa Marten

Larissa Marten

As the sole newcomer to the field of finalists in this year’s competition, Larissa Marten certainly stands out from her two classmates in the top three.

Her script, “I Killed the Cow,” also stands apart, as it requires only a single actress, and covers a subject Marten said is still only discussed behind closed doors — a woman’s sexuality.

“I find it so fascinating,” Marten said. “Sex culture is something that seems to be only acceptable to talk about once you and your friends have had a couple drinks. It’s this thing that seems to only be talked about in the dark.”

Marten’s play seeks to bring that subject into the light.

“I Killed the Cow” centers on the journey of one woman as she unearths the brutal, tender, fulfilling and unfulfilling moments of her life that have shaped her into the person she is today.

Over time, she begins to realize that her sex life may not have even been the main proponent in her sexual identity.

Marten, a senior at Michigan, has been working on the script for the last seven to eight months, she said. It is the second one-woman show she has written. The other, entitled “Lost. Shared. Taken,” deals with a similar subject.

While confident in the strength of her writing, Marten said she submitted the script for “I Killed the Cow” with low expectations, figuring the format and subject might not appeal to the tastes of the judges.

Finding out otherwise comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise, she said.

“I’m just happy that this form and topic got the attention they deserve,” she said. “Sexuality is still so in the dark, so the fact that a play about it made it this far shows that there’s more interest in it than one might think.”

“I Killed the Cow” will be read at Beckwith at 7:30 p.m. Friday. While intended as a one-woman show, multiple performers with Southwestern Michigan College will perform the reading.

 

Gregory Strasser, “Warsong”

7:30 p.m. Saturday

Gregory Strasser

Gregory Strasser

University of Michigan junior Gregory Strasser will again have his work featured on stage at Beckwith, this time with a work that tackles issues such as the unreliability of human memory and the dangers of finding oneself immersed in a virtual reality.

Strasser’s script, “Warsong,” tells the story of a man named Harry, a video game designer whose mother, Ming, murdered her husband’s lover a decade before the story begins. When the deceased’s daughter presents new evidence to Harry that may exonerate his mother, a decade of dark secrets, resentments and a culture of silence are uncovered.

As Harry desperately tries to sift through his memories, he will find that reality is not what it seems and that the truth can be terrifying.

“It’s like one man’s journey to figure out his path in life and discover the truth of what is going on around him,” Strasser said. “As a video game designer, he finds himself caught between what is reality and what is not.”

Similar to his play submitted to the contest last year, “Atlanta,” “Warsong” combines several themes and elements into a massive, sprawling mystery, the author said.

The student was inspired to begin working on the script after listening to the popular podcast “Serial,” a show that chronicles nonfiction stories in a narrative format. One of themes of the show is the fact that memories can be unreliable — something Strasser incorporated into his own script.

An avid fan of games, Strasser also wanted to use his story as a cautionary tale about people who find themselves too wrapped up in “immersive” interactive entertainment. The play itself has sort of game-like elements, with the main character often breaking the fourth wall to interact with the audience, Strasser said.

While still “a work in progress,” he decided to submit the play to the playwright awards, in part to get additional feedback on how to further refine the work, he said.

“I think it’s a very ambitious and massive work,” Strasser said.

“Warsong” will be read on stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, by actors with the South Bend Civic Theatre.

 

Graham Techler, “The Kid Cult Cosmology T.J. Started at School”

2 p.m. Sunday

Graham Techler

Gregory Strasser

As implied by the mouthful of a title, University of Michigan senior Graham Techler describes his entry into this year’s playwright awards as a “bizarre coming of age story.”

“The Kid Cult Cosmology T.J. Started at School” tells the story of a trio of middle school students — T.J., Robby and Aaron — who believe they witnessed a UFO in the sky one night after school. In response to this unexplained phenomenon, the three decide to create their own space-religion — which naturally leads to various hijinks, mischief and questions of who is just playing around and who is a true believer.

“It’s kind a dumb play, but in a good way,” Techler said. “It’s like a much less profane version of ‘South Park.’ Things happen in a weird way and people take it for granted that is just what happens around this town.”

Techler has shown he has knack for entertaining local audiences, as he has been a finalist in all three Emerging Playwright competitions. His 2014 submission, “Nantucket Sleighride,” won the inaugural event and was even turned into a full production by Beckwith last summer.

The student started working on the script two years ago, writing the first 20 or so pages before setting it down, only to pick it up again this summer, he said. Basing the story partly off his own fantastic experiences growing up, Techler said the story is a lot different from his other comedic works, as he wasn’t trying to make something “smart” or “cool” — just something for pure entertainment.

Having gotten to know several people in the area well in the course of the last few years, Techler is psyched to know his script has made it this far in the competition yet again and is looking forward to see it read on stage, he said.

“Just having a good excuse to come back to Dowagiac is nice,” he said.

“The Kid Cult Cosmology T.J. Started at School” will be read at 2 p.m. on Sunday by actors with the Beckwith Theatre Company.

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