Theaters debut some shows, send others packing

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26 December, 2018 By Becca Martin-Brown

When a theater snob from the big city says "world premiere," it's a safe bet that "Northwest Arkansas" isn't anywhere in the same sentence.

But he'd be wrong -- in ways even people who live in Northwest Arkansas might not realize.

In point of fact, this region has been launching new scripts since Kent R. Brown founded the Mount Sequoyah New Play Retreat in 1985. At the same time, he was busy debuting his own scripts, among them "Valentines and Killer Chili," "Dancing the Box Step" and "Welcome to Four Way: The Town That Time Forgot."

Mark Landon Smith, executive director of Arts Live Theatre, has been creating adaptations for the Fayetteville children's company as far back as "The Pirate Show" in 2007 -- a total of nine so far -- but he's also the author of 10 scripts published by Baker's Plays/Samuel French and Steele Spring Publishing, Drama Source and Contemporary Drama Service, including three foreign translations, an Off-Broadway production, a film adaptation and numerous productions throughout the world.

And at TheatreSquared, "celebrating, fostering and launching new work is in our very DNA," says Bob Ford, artistic director of the region's only professional theater company and one of its founders. "Right off the bat, in our second season [2006], we premiered a new play called 'My Father's War,' [written by Ford] which then popped up in theaters around the country and in Europe. Since then we've produced 10 more world premieres of new plays and adaptations, and in April we'll be producing the 11th annual Arkansas New Play Festival, a virtual hatchery of new work for the American stage."

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was a non-professional company that scored headlines beyond the region in 2018. "Things to Do in Munich," a new play by Oren Safdie, had its world premiere Nov. 2 at Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers, getting national attention from Broadway World and The Jerusalem Post.

"I'm excited for APT to be out there and mentioned in those publications," Ed McClure, director of the play and one of the founders of APT, said at the time. "And I'm happy for Oren. For the last 20 years, I've been going to New York and seeing shows, and it mystifies me that his work is not done more than it is. I find his scripts to be as compelling as many, many things I've seen."

But it wasn't the first new work on the APT stage. The community theater company debuted Safdie's "Checks and Balances" in November 2012, along with two adaptations by McClure, "Christmas Carol Today" and "#achristmascarol," in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

"The mission of APT is to produce classic, cutting edge and fresh-from-Broadway productions enhancing the arts community in Northwest Arkansas," McClure says. "'Munich' fits our mission because our mission extends what typical community theater is and does. 'Munich' validates our mission.

"For actors, it is the chance of a lifetime to get to originate a role, to play a part that no one else has ever done and do it without any preconceived ideas about what that character looks like, sounds like or acts like," he goes on. "For audiences, it's a chance to be part of history, right? You are seeing something that no one else has ever seen."

APT will offer the first non-professional production of "Stupid Kid" by Sharr White in March.

"Any chance we can make a connection with a great playwright, we will -- if they are willing and the script is worthy," McClure says.

"We love the risk and the excitement of being the first theater in the world to put on a new play," agrees Ford of T2, "and we feel an urgent need to be a part of the national conversation, a strong voice for our region. We couldn't be more pleased to see so much new work being launched in Northwest Arkansas."


Region Launches

National Tours

Premiering new works isn’t the region’s only claim to theatrical fame. Both the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville and the Alma Performing Arts Center in the River Valley have been the home base for new shows getting ready to go on tour since WAC launched “A Chorus Line” in the fall of 1997.

Since opening in 1990, the WAC total is up to 10, counting “The Lightning Thief,” coming in January 2019, and “Falsettos” in February 2019. The Alma PAC, now in its 16th year, boasts at least five, including most recently “The Wizard of Oz” in October.

“For us, the experience is invaluable and very satisfying,” says Teresa Schlabach, executive director of the Alma PAC. “Our students are able to work with the companies and have a professional experience working with Broadway tours. To be able to help these professional actors, actresses, audio, lighting and technical engineers get their shows ready for the road is fantastic.”

“Our mission is to bring world-class arts experiences to our region, and hosting technical rehearsals and launching national tours does just that,” adds WAC spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson. “Not only does this allow our patrons to see the first performances of a tour, usually direct from New York, but … on some level, that means that we’ve had an impact on communities across the country because of the role that we’ve played in each of these tours.”


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