Arts & Leisure

What does the American Dream mean today?

Alexandria Chang and Mei Li Huang rehearse a scene from Matthew Chong’s “Lessons.” This is one of four performances that will take the stage under the tent at the Swift House Inn in Middlebury during Middlebury Acting Company’s American Dreaming 2023: A New Play Festival, Aug. 11-13. Independent photo/Steve James

Have you ever been among the first diners at a new restaurant or the first customers of a hip new shop? It’s pretty nice to be in on the ground floor. Next weekend, the Middlebury Acting Company’s (MACo) is offering local theater enthusiasts a chance to be among the first crowds to see a new play.

On Aug. 11-13, MACo will stage its second annual new play festival at the Swift House Inn tent in Middlebury. Just like last year, American Dreaming 2023: A New Play Festival, will put on performances of three different plays, and new this year will be a fourth performance in which audience members can take part in a little improv if they like. 

MACo board President Gina Stevenson said the festival will bring new voices to the region. “One (goal of the festival) is to bring more literacy and excitement about new plays and new play development to our region,” she said. 

The organization gives local theater makers the opportunity to work with a new play, “which is not an opportunity that happens too often in Vermont,” Stevenson explained. 

“The third goal is to amplify these plays and emerging playwrights, to give them the opportunity to develop their plays in beautiful Vermont summer and help decide what they want to do next in developing their plays,” she continued. 

The play selection process began last fall when Stevenson put out a call to several submission boards to reach playwrights across the country. A panel of theater professionals reviewed 100 submissions of new plays. “A lot of the plays we were reading had never been read out loud before,” Stevenson said. “We were looking for the voice of the writer, a theatrical piece, we were looking for a play that addressed the question: what does the American dream mean today?”

They narrowed the field 15 finalists and ultimately landed on three: “Cowgirl” by Justin Aaron Halle, “Until the Day is Done” by Jared Michael Delaney and “Lessons” by Matthew Chong. “They all have vibrancy to them, interesting characters, interesting theatricality,” Stevenson said of the three plays. 

Halle’s Cowgirl,” which will be directed by Aly Perry, will kick off the festival at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 11. The play centers around three friends Jess, Lila and Bree who left the comfort of their city to spend the weekend on a fracking ranch in Wyoming for Bree’s wedding. Amidst the chaos of the wedding preparations, Lila unearths an old game called “Cowgirls.” Through playing the game, the three start to reveal deeply buried truths about themselves and each other. This wild and absurdly humorous play touches on themes such as the question of identity, the lure of capitalistic endeavors, and succumbing to and overcoming societal pressure. 

The next day, Saturday, Aug. 12, the festival will continue at 2 p.m. with the performance of Delaney’s “Until the Day Is Done,” directed by Zeina Salame. This play centers around two couples living in the Alaskan wilderness. We see the four characters grapple with the implications of a terminal diagnosis that one of the characters receives. This piece is a deeply moving one, that tugs at the heartstrings. It touches on the themes of freedom and choice and what it means to have authority over one’s own fate. 

MATTHEW CHONG’S ‘LESSONS,’ directed by Melissa Lourie, will be performed at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, during the Middlebury Acting Company’s American Dreaming 2023: A New Play Festival in the Swift
House Inn’s tent.
INDEPENDENT PHOTO / STEVE JAMES

Finally, Chong’s “Lessons,” directed by Melissa Lourie, will be performed at 7 p.m. that same day. This play is centered on a 16-year-old Korean-American girl, Yuri, who has devoted her entire life to learning and mastering the piano. She is selected to study music under a renowned composer and believes this will be her opportunity to get her foot in the door to the world of classical music. However, her teacher’s unorthodox teaching methods cause her to with her sense of self. This play is driven by its conflict which centers around the pursuit of excellence and the implications of that in the context of the immigrant experience. 

To wrap up the weekend’s performances, the folks at MACo have added an unusual fourth performance to the playbill: Storyprov Time. On Sunday, Aug. 13 at 2 p.m., professional actor and improviser Andrew Ritter will lead this family-friendly event that aims to get audience members of all ages involved in the storytelling process. Essentially, Storyprov will be an improv show in which audience members can participate, while Ritter narrates. 

“I believe some of the stuff that’s already in the festival is geared towards adults,” said Ritter, who taught improv, musical improv and sketch comedy at The Second City and created, directed, produced and performed in the critically acclaimed family friendly improv show “The Greatest Story Never Told.” 

“This is a way to bring families and children into the festival as well. This is to show the power of storytelling even if it’s not been written before.”

Audience volunteers of all ages will have the opportunity to choose a character, get up on stage, and perform in an improvised tale completely inspired by audience suggestions. Randal Pierce will provide live improvised musical accompaniment. The show will run 30-45 minutes. There is no forced participation.

Storyprov, which is free to attend, will be influenced by the tastes and suggestions of the audience themself with the guidance of a professional improvisers. Ritter emphasizes that this format blurs the lines between performer and audience and it is a way to get everyone involved in the storytelling process. It is meant to be a fun way to echo the festival’s goal of getting the community involved in theater and the processes that make it happen.

Tickets for the readings are available at townhalltheater.org or at 802-382-9222, and it is also possible to purchase at the tent at the time of the performance. Tickets for each individual reading can be purchased at $15 or attendees can purchase a Play Series Pass at $40 to get access to all three readings. Storyprov Time can be attended by folks of all ages free of charge. 

There will also be barbecue sold at the Swift House Inn before each of the shows. So, attendees are welcome to arrive up to an hour before each performance, grab some food, and settle in for the show. 

After each reading, there will be an opportunity for the audience to engage directly with the playwrights in a talkback hosted by Stevenson. It is an opportunity for the community to be directly involved in the play development process and for the up-and-coming playwrights to see an audience react to their play for the first time and build off of that. The audience to offer their thoughts on the plays and ask any questions they might have. The playwrights will have the opportunity to respond directly to the audience and engage in an active, constructive dialogue about their work. 

The team at MACo is hoping to build off of their momentum from last year to make this year’s New Play Festival a success. 

“At least two of (the plays) have never been performed in front of an audience,” Stevenson said. “It’s exciting for our audience to be there at the beginning of the play’s journey. It’s exciting that we get to be the first viewers of these new plays.

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