While American Stage’s fifth annual new play festival continues the tradition of introducing and developing new and unproduced works, there’s a special, timely twist this time around. All four plays deal, in one way or another, with mental health issues.
“I think it’s clear to a lot of people,” says associate artistic director Kristin Clippard, “that the collective trauma of 2020 has caused a lot of mental health crises. All of us are suffering from depression, anxiety, isolation, and it’s a very good time to be having a conversation around mental health.”
The entire 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival, Jan. 15-17 and 22-24 is, of course, virtual.
The seed was planted when last July’s scheduled show, Next to Normal, was among those canceled during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. As with Fun Home, the Broadway smash produced by American Stage in 2019, mental illness is a spotlight theme in the Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt musical.
“We were really excited about that show,” explains Clippard, “and of course devastated when we had to let go of it.”
Clippard credits CEO and producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte with the idea of dedicating the new play festival to the same concept.
“When we put out our call for submissions, we said we are looking for plays with a focus on mental health, mental wellness and resiliency. That kind of left it open broadly for playwrights to determine what that means, so they could decide ‘Do I feel like my play would apply?’”
Out of 200-plus submissions, from around the country, the four to be produced are In Search of the Mothman by Amber Palmer, Sons of Liberty by Cris Eli Blak, The Polar Bear Society by Meghan Maugeri and Gated, written by former Sarasota resident Arlene Hutton.
Each virtual production will be followed by presentations and discussions with mental health professionals and clinicians.
“I think that because mental health is not our area of expertise, it was important to us to make sure that we were including people who could help speak to creative ways to address their mental health,” offers Clippard. “It’s important to be able to say ‘Let’s have a conversation, but let’s do it in a very formed and focused way – not just us, a bunch of artists, surmising.’”
Even with this strong, issue-based focus, Clippard says, 21st Century: New Play Festival “is still about developing a new play. That said, it really is about focusing in on the story and the storytelling. We have a total of 12 actors for the four shows, they’re all coming to us remotely from home, from all across the country.”
Unlike recent American Stage virtual shows such as Kate and Nosotros La Gente, which employed elaborate sets and complex video production, the four new pieces will be presented – as always with 21st Century Voices – as staged readings. This time, via Zoom.
“It’s a little less fancy,” Clippard explains, “because it’s really about hearing the words and developing conversations. It’s not about all the bells and whistles.”
Schedule of all related events, and tickets, here.