The Show Must Go On

The Show Must Go On

Playwrights continue work without festival


When the University of Arkansas Department of Theatre produced the first ArkType New Play Festival in 2018, department chairman Michael Riha said it was a natural progression for the ever-growing and evolving department. The program, which offers an MFA in playwriting to UA students, was established in 1996, and more recent curriculum changes include a playwriting requirement for all students, including undergraduates.

“After revamping our curriculum within our performance concentration, playwriting is being required for the first time, and it’s blowing up,” noted Riha in a previous interview. “Students are showing great interest in developing 10-minute plays, one-acts and full-length plays. Also, this is really how you start your career — you have to invent your own work. You can’t wait for someone else to do it. We’re trying to develop that entrepreneurial sense — it’s not just about talent, it’s about how do you make this happen?

“We feel that writing is a serious strength of our students and faculty,” added Riha. “With [playwrights] Les Wade and John Walch on our faculty, we thought we would do something that honored what we think is a growing interest at the University of Arkansas Department of Theatre.”

In what would have been its third year, the festival has been canceled — as have so many other events — due to the covid-19 pandemic. But, says Walch, who is head of the playwriting program, that won’t stop the department from doing what they can to foster the growth and success of these new works.

Spotlight on Playwright Brendan Beseth
Playwright Brendan Beseth made a pretty radical culture shift when he moved to Fayetteville to start the playwriting MFA program two years ago. Before that, he was working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles “Luckytown,”, a 2000 movie starring James Caan and Kirsten Dunst, is one of his credits.

“We are proceeding with development of all the pieces [planned],” says Walch. “Guest resource artists (directors/dramaturgs/composers) had been identified for each project, and the Department of Theatre is committing to continuing to support their work with each playwright over the next month so the playwrights can at least move the play forward with their principle collaborators. The metaphor I use is that all writers had just started doing some serious rewriting renovation on their plays in conversation with their collaborators — tearing out walls, moving plumbing lines, reframing windows, etc. Then it all just stopped, and they are now standing in a mess. We’re hoping to help them find ways to finish the renovation with their collaborators (remotely), even if we were unable to throw the public party (the new play festival) in their newly rearranged worlds.”

Walch adds that a John Steinbeck quote that’s been “floating around” says it best.

“’The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive,’” Walch quotes. “As I like to say, theater is the original social media that’s been around longer than Christianity. It survived the Dark Ages. I trust it will again.”

The 2020 ArkType New Play Festival plays included:

‘Wild Eden’

By Lauren Ferebee

About the Play: A family of three arrives for their annual summer vacation at an ancient lagoon turned theme park turned wetlands in the aftermath of an oil spill.

About the Playwright: Lauren Ferebee’s plays have been developed across the United States. Most recently, her play “Brilliance” was featured as part of Boomerang Theatre Company’s First Flight Festival in New York City, and “Every Waiting Heart,” which had a reading at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, will premiere with Chicago theatre Artemisia in the fall of 2020. She also writes original music and collaborates as a founding member of Scrappy Shakes, a theater collective out of Spartanburg, S.C. She holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch and is a current MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas.

‘Thrift Store Junkie’

By Brendan Beseth

About the Play: Henry makes his living sifting through thrift stores for used books and other detritus to resell on eBay. Constantly seeking validation by trying to grow his eternally meager profit margin, he’s lost touch with any sense of self-worth — until he’s pulled into a spiritual journey that gives him the opportunity to see what really matters in life.

About the Playwright: Brendan Beseth is an MFA candidate in playwriting at the University of Arkansas. Most recently, his play “Bookshop” was featured at the 2018 William Inge Theatre Festival, and his play “A Vegas Kind of Love” was a finalist for Rogue Machine’s Premier Award for best new play at the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival. A screenplay he wrote was made into a feature film starring Kirsten Dunst and James Caan, but his true love is writing plays. He is a member of the Actors Studio Playwrights and Directors Unit in Los Angeles and of the Dramatists Guild.


By Adrienne Dawes

About the Play: After the brutal murder of family members by law enforcement, Mom decides to raise her surviving son Devin in a secret bunker built underground. The arrival of a New Commander complicates the precarious balance Mom tries to maintain between her full-time job as an emergency dispatcher and the strict homeschool curriculum designed for her son. When new neighbor JaBen disrupts Devin’s routine, he challenges everything Devin’s been taught about survival above ground.

About the Playwright: Adrienne Dawes is an award-winning playwright and producer originally from Austin, Texas. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild, ScriptWorks and a company member of Salvage Vanguard Theater. Follow her work online

Two years ago, Michael Riha, chairman of the University of Arkansas Department of Theatre, was getting ready to show off the new Global Campus black-box facility on the Fayetteville square during the ArkType New Play Festival. This year’s event was canceled due to covid-19 concerns.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

‘Dairy Queen’

By Sarah Loucks

About the Play: Karen and Lee are employees at the local Dairy Queen, where they’re stuck working on the Fourth of July. As fireworks explode in the street and the night drags on, the two teenagers begin plotting a future neither of them expected. Reigning over an empty Dairy Queen, a large quantity of ice cream and some hidden vodka, they imagine adventure, salvation and America beneath the florescent lights.

About the Playwright: Sarah Loucks is a playwright and theater maker. She produces her plays under the name MouthRadio in Austin, Texas, and is currently an MFA candidate in playwriting at the University of Arkansas. Most recently, Sarah produced a performance festival dedicated to Dolly Parton called DOLLY FEST 2019 in Austin. She often writes about class, labor and American entropy.

Categories: Theater