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Louisville's Teen Playwrights Express Themselves Through Actors Theatre's New Voices Festival

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Tara Anderson
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Betsy Anne Huggins, Collin Morris, Joe Lino, Max Monnig

Though this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre is over, the company has two more evenings of original drama planned for this week.

Eight new short plays will premiere as part of the New Voices Young Playwrights festival.

In a rehearsal room at Actors Theatre of Louisville, stage director Betsy Anne Huggins recently led a group of actors in a run-through of a new play, called “Sick.” The 10-minute play focuses on the so-called “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when gay people were persecuted under McCarthyism. The two main characters undergo involuntary psychiatric treatment, and in one case, a lobotomy.  

The stage manager and the playwright sat at long tables along one end of the room, watching carefully. As with any new play at Actors Theatre, the playwright is involved with the process of the first production, but this playwright is only 17.

Huy Vo, a senior at duPont Manual High School, is one of nearly 600 area high school students who submitted a play for the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival, and one of only eight writers whose script is being produced with full sets, costumes, and lighting. It was a big moment when he first heard the actors reading his play.

"It was extremely exciting, and nerve-wracking. I could just imagine it being produced,” Vo said.

The New Voices festival is also the capstone project for Actors Theatre’s Apprentice/Intern company, a group of trainees who work in all areas from acting to lighting design to publicity. Each playwright is assigned a director and a dramaturg, who helps with research related to the play’s subject and themes. Jane Jones, the education director at Actors Theatre, said the collaborative process is part of what playwrights are there to learn.

"This festival is very much modeled after the Humana Festival, in the sense that we're really focusing on the playwright's voice and the playwright's vision, so we really want them to have that full experience,” Jones said.

Huy Vo said he’s been encouraged by the process.

“The staff here, and my directors and my dramaturg and my actors are just so invested. Their enthusiasm is extremely surprising, and how thorough they are,” Vo said.

The subject matter of the eight plays ranges from sexual assault on college campuses to freestyle rap battles to a competition between a Frisbee team and a ping-pong team. There’s even a play about two starfish, just hanging out, talking about life.

Jones said these young playwrights have a lot on their minds.

“I think teenagers get a bad rap, as being kind of apathetic or too cool for anything, and this proves again and again that, if anything, teenagers care so much, and they are so invested in what’s going on in the world. And it may not look like that to all of the adults, but they have very important things to say and they’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it,” Jones said.

In the rehearsal room, the actors took a break after doing a run-through. Director Betsy Anne Huggins and dramaturg Ariel Sibert conferred with Vo about a tricky moment near the end of his play. This is the collaborative process in action: the playwright has a vision for what he wants to say, and the director helps him find the clearest way to say it, so they kicked around a new idea.

Betsy: …But we enter back into the room, at the very end of the procedure, and so our last moment is Dr. Mullins and Nurse Collins at the bedside with Louis.

Huy: Oh, that would be really, really cool.

Betsy: Oh, you’re interested in playing with that?

Huy: Oh, yeah, that’s cool.

Betsy: OK, awesome, let’s try it, yeah!

The stage manager called the actors back to work, and they started to try that new idea to see how it worked.

The Young Voices New Playwrights Festival runs Monday and Tuesday night at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Here's more information.

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