The May 28-June 3 GPTC New Play Conference convenes around theater practice. This 18th annual centerpiece of the Great Plains Theatre Commons presents staged readings and curated conversations. Pieces by 12 featured playwrights were selected from 600-plus submissions.
PlayLab readings, workshops, panels, all free and open to the public, unfold at Metropolitan Community College’s Swanson Conference Center and Mule Barn on the Fort Omaha campus.
Before the conference, playwrights are assigned a director, dramaturg, designer and actors to collaborate via Zoom, often first meeting in-person at the event.
The 2023 crop of plays explores family dynamics and pandemic-tinged issues. Most, as usual, trend serious but with humorous strains. A year after several Korean and African American plays, this year features two Southeast Asian plays.
Anya Pearson’s “Without a Formal Declaration of War” is part of a play cycle transferring Greek drama into 1960s urban Oakland.
Previously workshopped at GPTC, the Rachael Carnes play “Practice House” is getting a full PlayFest stage production. It dramatizes a real-life experiment that saw orphanages lease babies for women training in new scientific parenting methods. The May 31-June 2 world premiere performances are at 7:30 p.m. at Yates Illuminates, 3260 Davenport St.
The Seattle-based Carnes completed the first draft in 2018. It was selected for the 2020 GPTC conference that was canceled due to the pandemic. Even during that limbo time, Carnes said, “GPTC’s commitment to craft and collaboration helped me to feel connected. From the artistic side to the caring, supportive administrators, GPTC feels like family. And in that humane, artist-centered world, we can take risks, explore, learn and grow. ‘Practice House’ would not be the play that it is without this team.”
Nurturing has brought the play full circle at GPTC.
“A playwright doesn’t know what they have until they hear it,” she said. “GPTC provided the first opportunity to workshop the script. Working with the creative team, a committed dramaturg, director and stellar cast enabled me to get to know the play like never before, and together, we slid any last puzzle pieces into place.”
Getting her “living, breathing” play on its feet are director Susie Baer Collins, who directed it in ’21, set-light designer Bill Van Deest, costumer Denise Ervin and prop-mistress Hannah Clark.
“It’s exciting when a play evolves from a reading to being realized in full production. It’s really moving from one mode of communication to another,” said playwright and GPTC Community Connector Ellen Struve.
The conference is among few venues focused on the fragile new play development practice,
“There are not as many places, even nationally, for new plays as there used to be,” said GPTC Manager Quinn Metal Corbin. “The Humana Festival no longer exists in the form it did. Sundance Theatre Lab is no more. The Lark Theatre has closed. Those are all places that emphasized new play work.
“It is a tricky, often illusive, lesser-known part of theater,” she said. “It’s less commercially risky to produce classics by playwrights no longer living than to nurture the living organism of work still in process.” GPTC tries filling the gap. “Because new play development is a special thing it’s always been fairly limited and unfortunately is a bit more limited now, so we’re really thankful to be able to be doing that work.”
Playwright Nayna Agrawal, whose “Dharma” is being read, said, “GPTC is one of those rare opportunities where playwrights are made a priority and set up for success. It’s not just valuable, it’s transformative. The immersive experience is such a gift. Feedback from your peers and mentors can be incredibly rewarding. I hope to build new relationships, support other playwrights and artists and determine what can and should change in my next draft.” Her dramedy imagines Indian siblings conspiring their immigrant parents’ divorce.
Feeding playwrights’ bodies happens courtesy MCC’s Institute of Culinary Arts. Feeding their spirit is a communal effort. Corbin said pains are taken to create opportunities for playwrights “to become their own cohort” through group activities.
That cohort extends beyond playwrights. Dramaturg Jihye Kim, who works in her native South Korea and America, describes the conference as “a summer camp for theater professionals.” She’s back after participating last year. “They put us in a nice hotel, take us to a very pretty campus, feed us with amazing local culinary arts, and shower us with programs that guarantee a quality time. I met wonderful artists from all over the world. I’ve become very good friends with two of the playwrights and two of the directors. This kind of artistic companionship is rare and I’m very grateful.”
“One of the magical things about the conference is the amount of collegiality,” said Struve. “Playwriting begins as a solo endeavor. The conference creates a really strong bond among the playwrights. For them to feel supported by one another is really important.”
Quinn said returning artists often refer peers to it. Native Nebraska talents return to participate. Some use the confab as a networking tool to forge or enhance professional relationships.
Wai Yim, managing director of Token Theatre in Chicago, ran Aetherplough in Omaha and still takes directing gigs here. He will direct Miles Orduna’s play “Lola” at the conference. Coming home, he said, “kinda resets my clock and feeds my soul. I love working on new plays. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the rooms of many at GPTC and New Stages at Goodman Theatre in Chicago. You learn a lot just by being in the room. It certainly helped me with my playwriting.”
New York producer, actor and activist Sierra Lancaster of Omaha is back directing “Dharma.” The former Kennedy Center Fellow was a co-producer of “Pass Over” on Broadway.
GPTC is a catalyst for artists like Eva Quam to study drama and Kim Louise to begin playwriting. It welcomes younger generations of practitioners and aspirants. A May 30 performance of a one-act by GPTC Young Dramatists grad Phoenix Nehls is set for 7 p.m. at MCC. Her SHERRIE reimagines Sherlock Holmes and Watson as young women.
The conference is also a landing spot for national artists such as Madeline Easley, a Wyandotte performer and writer whose work converges at the intersection of magical realism and tribal sovereignty. Her Four Directions playwright residency is being hosted by GPTC.
The conference draws on the greater Omaha theater community for actors, directors, et cetera. Year-round, GPTC presents plays and workshops at partner venues. “We can be a uniting space for all the different theaters and generations and backgrounds,” Corbin said. “That cross-pollinization is healthy for the theater ecology.”
Despite Nebraska Shakespeare’s absence, the ecosystem is growing with the addition of Benson Theatre, the Shirley Tyree Theater opening next fall and the growth of UNO’s musical theater program and Summer Musical Theatre Academy.
“Good theater is good for all theater,” said Struve, adding GPTC has a “special mission to provide access, connection and a creative home for everybody, regardless of what theater they normally work at or their experience with theater.”
The laboratory model, Corbin said, offers an insider’s glimpse of work in flux. “It’s a very live, organic process of plays changing, designs evolving. It has a whole other feel to it.”
“Omaha’s really embraced the staged reading, and I think it’s actually quite popular and not as niche as it may once have been,” said Struve.
The conference is also intimate enough for artists and audiences to interact.
A workshop by Ollie Webb Center and Circle Theatre will explore creating plays with artists who have physical and intellectual disabilities.
Representation at GPTC is far more evident today than a decade ago. “I think they are on the right track, and I really appreciate them for trying hard. It will take time, but it is a must,” Yim said.
“Our free programming provides opportunities to engage folks that might not be able to go see a touring Broadway show,” Corbin said.
GPTC’s reputation carries far.
“I’ve known about GPTC for years. It’s the holy grail,” the Oregon-based Agrawal said.
“It’s known as a conference that sets the standard for an artist-centered approach,” Carnes said, “and a place where new plays are discovered and supported.” For schedule details, visit www.gptcplays.com/the-conference.