At any birth — whether that of a human being or a work of art — there is excitement, joy, fear and anticipation. And there are a lot of emotions at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre right now, as it prepares to end its season with the first OriginKC: New Works Festival.
Currently in preview performances, the New Works Festival officially opens April 30 at the Copaken Stage and runs through May 22 with two plays in rotating repertory:
▪ “Fire in Dreamland”: A woman rediscovers her independence after being enthralled by her inattentive lover, a filmmaker obsessed by a tragic fire at the turn of the 20th century. Written by Rinne Groff; directed by Marissa Wolf, the Rep’s director of new works.
▪ “Lot’s Wife”: A playwright who has suffered the loss of his family unveils a new work, a 1930s noir thriller. His script reopens old wounds as actors are made to play themselves and solve a mystery. Written by the Rep’s artistic director Eric Rosen; directed by Joanie Schultz.
The festival is part of the nascent OriginKC program, which includes commissions, in-house development, main stage productions and table reads.
“OriginKC is really a civic pride brand of everything we do,” Rosen said.
Rosen and Wolf were deep in the rehearsal and rewriting process when they spoke with The Star about a concept years in the making.
The name, OriginKC, references that seed of an idea, the origins of a work. It speaks, also, to Kansas City — its communities, its stories and its support — as the birthplace for these works. And with the festival, they take the Rep back to its roots as a rotating repertory company.
Rosen said the festival is the culmination of eight years of trying to come up with an artist-centered, innovative approach.
“We’ve been successful as a new play theater, and we’re putting all that energy into this festival to see if it can become its own enterprise, to be uniquely of this town, this theater and this theater community,” he said.
“The mantra has been: How do we serve the playwright? How do we put the playwright back in the center of the theater?”
The Rep commits to a playwright’s work early in the process, with development opportunities and the guarantee of production. Organizers have arranged the festival so that playwrights can make alterations during the run, an unusual opportunity they feel is key to the development of the works.
The Rep hired Wolf in 2014 to run the program and curate the festival. She has built her career on producing new works.
“I feel very dedicated to championing a diverse body of playwrights’ voices … investing and supporting stories that aren’t being told … and giving visibility to new ways of looking at life,” she said. “You are serving the playwright’s vision and bringing it to life in arresting and startling and exciting ways that maybe the playwright didn’t even imagine. That means a rewriting process” — Groff is on at least draft 20, over a three year period — “and that means allowing a safe and nurturing environment.”
Wolf had worked with Groff previously and pitched the play for the festival.
“Fire in Dreamland” “is a really beautiful, nuanced, lyrical look at a young woman finding her voice, moving through destruction and out the other side,” Wolf said.
The two plays work in tandem, she said.
“They both deal in the currency of memory and what’s at stake in looking back, how dangerous it can be to get caught in the past, but how … flashes of memory are always with us, in our daily life. And they both deal with the process of creating a piece of art.”
Rosen’s play started life in 1992. It was produced in 2007 as “Wedding Song” with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where Rosen lived at the time. He put it away when he moved to Kansas City to take the Rep job.
A few years ago he looked at it again, took 25 percent from that script, added 25 percent new material, and then cut the script in half, creating “Lot’s Wife,” a playful, meta-theatrical, confessional play, fictional yet personal, based on “things that sort of happened, except,” he clarified with a laugh, “for the murder part.”
This is only the second play he has written that he hasn’t also directed. “It’s been an amazing experience. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to directing my own work. I’m learning so much, especially about being able to stay vulnerable and open.”
Additionally, Rosen hopes that “it signals my confidence in the OriginKC initiative … to say, ‘We’re really behind this, even our artistic director is participating in this way.’ ”
The casts feature actors familiar to Kansas City audiences (Vanessa Severo, Rusty Sneary, Carla Noack, Bree Elrod and Brian Huther) joined by new faces (New York-based Gabriel Marin and Chicago-based Adam Poss).
The festival is also using in-house designers from the Rep staff: Mark Hambrecht, Grace Hudson and Michelle Harvey. Oftentimes, they are fulfilling the vision of an off-site designer, so this gives them the opportunity, like Rosen, to further utilize their creative abilities as artists.
For Rosen, it’s an integral element that speaks to the passion and commitment of the Rep.
“To have (my) play so loved and taken care of by all these people, not because I’m telling them to, which is normally the case, but as a writer. This is the first time I’ve ever felt that.”
On opening night they will present the plays back-to-back on Copaken Stage with a break in between to reset the stage.
“There is something really vital and exciting about that,” Wolf said. “A kind of camaraderie and buzz around multiple projects in one space. “
The shows then alternate performances, with the weekend of May 13-15 hosting a loaded schedule of additional events: three play readings (including the works they will produce next season), lectures, preshow conversations and artist Q&As.
With these events to help dig into the creation process, they want to stimulate a conversation between the artists, the audience and, hopefully, in the community and nationally.
For the Rep, the conversation doesn’t end when the festival ends.
“It’s a long-term investment in playwrights and their body of work,” Wolf said. “This is us throwing resources, love and energy behind the work … to get it to a place where it can shine as a world premiere.”