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Theater festival brings student writing to life

The Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies' second annual "Writing is Live" festival — a 10-day event featuring nine fully staged productions, readings and workshops in locations all over campus and downtown Providence — begins tonight with "And Joy," written by Zarina Shea GS and directed by Kristopher Lencowski GS.

The event grew out of the "New Plays" festival, the main medium for graduate student playwrights to showcase their works for the past 30 years, said Vanessa Gilbert, adjunct lecturer in TAPS and artistic director of the festival. The event's transition to "Writing is Live" also reflects the move of the Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting from the literary arts program to the TAPS department.

"The festival is expanding into a more rigorous look at what writing can do when it is staged," Gilbert added.

Highlights of the festival include plays by second-year playwrights Theo Goodell GS, Rachel Jendrzejewski GS and Ian McDonald GS, who are all part of the MFA playwriting program.

Goodell's piece, "The Darkson Chronicles," focuses on the adventures of a detective named Dan Darkson. The play is inspired by pulp-noir, with a very 1950s feel, Gilbert said.

Jendrzejewski is presenting "Meronymy," which incorporates "amazing props," Gilbert said. The play is based around memory and takes place on three levels of scaffolding that move through the theatre space, she added. Attached to the scaffolding are 13 slide projectors and a large sculpture of one of the characters.

Adding to this eclectic mix of productions is McDonald's "The Boy Who Lived Forever (and the Woman Who Didn't)." He described his play as "a scary fairy tale of sorts" that was inspired by horror movies and novels, as well as young children. McDonald said he has enjoyed working with adolescents and felt there was a need for more plays with children protagonists.

"There's not a lot of scary plays out there, and I'm trying to rectify that," McDonald said.

The story follows two preadolescent children who find a dead woman in the woods hanging by her neck, McDonald said. As the play progresses, the woman gradually loses parts of her body, which leads to an encounter with the mysterious entity responsible for this.

"It's supposed to be funny and silly in parts, but I'm hoping to scare some people," McDonald said.

While the festival in past years has featured almost exclusively graduate student productions, Rebecca Schneider, chair of the TAPS program, said this year's festival includes a play by Franny Choi '11, who is also a Herald cartoonist.

Choi's piece, titled "Mask Dances," is based on the 1980 Kwangju incident in South Korea, when pro-democracy students protesting the new government and martial law were brutally suppressed, Choi said. "This project is about exposing a very violent event," she added.

The protagonist is a female student in her first year at Chonnam National University in Kwangju who is thrown into the world of student activism. "I can feel it resonating strongly with the actors — many of whom have been involved in this kind of work — and I think it will resonate pretty strongly with other students who come to the play," Choi said.

She added that she incorporates traditional Korean art forms, music and costumes in the play. The title of the play is named after a form of traditional Korean theater.

"The play relies pretty heavily on Korean traditions of art and theater arts because it uses those modes to euphemize what can't be represented realistically on stage," she said.

Organizing "Writing is Live" has been challenging at times — especially due to the weather — but not any more difficult than putting together a typical play, Gilbert said. Plans for the festival were begun almost immediately after last year's event ended. Along with the playwrights, actors and department staff, the festival also had help from people in the community.

"What's really important now is that audiences complete that circle of development," Gilbert said.

For McDonald, who is also directing his own play, the past month has been an endless schedule of rehearsals, rewriting and creating props.

But he said he has enjoyed the experience. "It's like Christmas three times a week," he said. "There's these constant surprises."

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