The University Record, May 20, 2002

Festival of New Works helps writers perfect their creations

By Emily Hebert
University Record intern

“Orchids are like really bad lovers,” says Dave Carley. “You can love them and look at them and worship them but they don’t care.”

Carley is not a distressed botanist. He is actually the writer of “Orchidelerium,” one of five plays featured in the U-M’s ongoing Festival of New Works. “Kitchen Prayers,” a play presented by U-M drama professor Glenda Dickenson, finished its run on Sunday (May 19). The four remaining plays, “Orchid-elerium,” “Wild Women of Planet Wongo,” “Sage” and “Madame Mao” have their final performances this week.

Carley, a 2000 Arthur Miller Award winner and current drama editor at CBC Radio, says he first got his inspiration for “Orchidelerium” after reading an article about the 19th century American Acclimatization Society. “They decided that Americans needed more ‘culture’ so they brought birds from England that had been mentioned in Shakespeare,” explains Carley. Beautiful birds such as the nightingale and cuckoo were brought over, but the starling was one of the only birds to survive. “I was fascinated with that story and about how stupid it was to bring over the ugliest bird ever, just because it was mentioned in Shakespeare,” says Carley.

“Orchidelerium” is composed of two, simultaneous storylines. While the first is based on the incident with the starlings, the second is about a modern-day professor who discovers an orchid with magic medical properties and tries to bring it to market. The play is a drama but it also has humor, says Carley, who plans to have a full production of the play at Toronto’s Factory Theater in February.

“Madame Mao,” another play featured at the Festival of New Works, also is set for a second staging at the Santa Fe Opera in 2003. Written by Bright Sheng, School of Music professor and recipient of the 2001 MacArthur Foundation Award, the opera chronicles the life of China’s Jiang Qing, otherwise known as Madame Mao. She was a na´ve young actress who, after marrying communist ruler Mao Zedong, came to have great political clout. At the Festival of New Works, audiences can view a staged reading of Act One of “Madame Mao.” Managing director and film and video studies program coordinator, Mary Lou Chlipala, is excited about introducing opera into the festival. “Madame Mao is something we’re doing that’s really new this year,” Chlipala says.

“Wild Women of Planet Wongo” is not an opera, although the play is in a musical format. Writers Ben Budick, Steve Mackes and Dave Ogrin say that, while developing “Wongo,” they were influenced by ’60s pop music from The Supremes, Burt Bacharach, The Monkees and Simon & Garfunkel. Describing their play as “ ‘Austin Powers’ meets ‘Lost In Space,’ ” Budick, Mackes and Ogrin also credit ’60s Grade-C science-fiction films as their inspiration. “It has the same silly sensibility that ‘Austin Powers’ has,” says Mackes. “So if you’re into that kind of humor, I think you would enjoy our show.” The action of “Wild Women of Planet Wongo” begins when two astronauts and their robot crash on a planet solely inhabited by “sexy, man-hungry, warrior women.”

Budick, Mackes and Ogrin say the play took a year to develop. Writing it became more complicated after Budick relocated to Florida. But Budick says that America Online’s Instant Messenger was very useful. “We typed back and forth to each other, writing the lyrics so you could actually see it [on the computer screen],” he says. Mackes, Ogrin and Budick say watching the play come alive during rehearsal has been both enjoyable and helpful. Chlipala says helping writers develop and improve their scripts is the main function of the festival. “In your head you envision the story, but it’s not until the actors actually say the words that your ideas start coming alive,” she explains. “When you see and hear your play, you realize problems, inconsistencies and repetition.”

“The festival is a very short period of time, but the hope is to have [at the end of the two weeks] a tighter and more concise script,” she adds.

Chlipala believes that the Festival of New Works is especially helpful for Andrea George, author of “Sage,” the only screenplay being performed at the Festival. It is a drama centered on a young woman from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Screenwriters don’t have the opportunity to work on characterizations and dialogue like playwrights do,” says Chlipala. “Somebody takes it [the screenplay] out of their hands and puts it on film.” Chlipala explains that the festival allows the screenwriter to be part of the production process.

George is a recent U-M Film and Video graduate and participated in the department’s screenwriting program currently headed by Jim Burnstein, writer of “Renaissance Man” and “Mighty Ducks 3.” Each year the festival features a screenplay by an alumnus of the program. Chilpala says that the festival’s other participants are recruited from around the country and that a letter of recommendation from an artistic director or literary manager usually is required. Former festival showcases include “Summer of ’42” and “Hearts.” The former was written by U-M graduates Hunter Foster (also star of Broadway’s “Urinetown”) and David Kirshenbaum, and experienced a short-lived run off-Broadway. “Hearts,” written by Willie Holtzman, was nominated for a Pulitzer earlier this year.

The Festival of New Works is its fourth year at the U-M and is currently taking place at the Trueblood Theatre in the Freize Building.