There's A Festival Afoote

December 9, 2003
The Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival, March 3-6, 2004.
Packages available to the four-day 2004 Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival include several options for the following events:

  • The 50th anniversary presentation of Foote's play, "The Traveling Lady"
• Readings of the playwright's works
• Q&A with Foote & actors, including these anticipated guests: Matthew Broderick, Ellen Burstyn, Robert Duvall, Hallie Foote, Romulus Linney, Estelle Parsons and Jean Stapleton
• Panel presentations by directors, writers, actors and academicians
• Gala dinner & benefit concert
• A guided tour of Wharton, Texas (Foote's hometown)



It's been 21 years since Marion Castleberry met legendary playwright Horton Foote. At the time, Castleberry was teaching at a university in Abilene, Texas, and happened to have the good fortune to know somebody who knew Foote. A few years later, they were reintroduced when Foote agreed to let the younger man -- then working on his dissertation -- spend multiple days interviewing him and his family. It was an honor Castleberry hasn't forgotten.
Indeed, when Foote is recognized March 3-6 during the University's inaugural Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival, Castleberry -- and the rest of the theater world -- have the chance to more than return the favor.
"More than any other American playwright, he has been successful in every medium he's ever worked in -- film, television, theater. I'm not sure there's anything he couldn't do if he wanted to," says Castleberry, who joined the theater department's faculty in 2001 as an associate professor. "Quite frankly, Horton is the Texas 'bard.' He's a master of American drama. There's nobody else."
Foote has an extensive professional résumé that includes Academy Awards in 1962 for his screen adaption of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and in 1982 for his screenplay "Tender Mercies," a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "The Young Man From Atlanta" and an Emmy in 1997 for "The Old Man." The Wharton, Texas, native pays homage to his home in many of his works. "Where he came from -- his roots and his family -- have become the very essence of who he is," Castleberry says. "He constantly thinks about them. He writes about them."
During the last decade, Castleberry has written numerous articles about Foote's life; a book, Horton Foote: Genesis of an American Playwright, a series of essays written by Foote and edited by Castleberry, will be released by Baylor University Press in conjunction with the festival. Castleberry says he was surprised to discover through his research that the playwright has a unique connection to Baylor: In 1845, Foote's great-great-grandfather Albert Clinton Horton, the first lieutenant governor of Texas, gave $5,000 to establish the University and was a charter member of its board of trustees.
"He must've been a very remarkable man to have been interested in education," says Foote, who surmised his ancestor -- a plantation owner -- never could have guessed there might be a writer in his family who someday would be honored by the University. "It would be the furthest thing from his imagination."
Stan Denman, chair of the theater department, says Foote is beloved by the many professionals he's worked with through the years. "I think Horton is at the age where he realizes the most important thing to him is to give back. He doesn't have to worry about building a reputation or a name," he says. "He is one of the kindest, gentlest and most generous people I've ever met."
The four-day event at Baylor is the culmination of Castleberry's dreams of recognizing Foote's contribution to theater and Denman's desire for the University to develop an annual American playwrights festival. "It was a natural marriage of two ideas," Denman says.
This year's schedule includes panel presentations by Foote's colleagues and family members, including his four children, all of whom are stage actors or playwrights; selected readings of his works; a question-and-answer session with Foote, Robert Duvall, Peter Masterson and others; and a guided tour of Wharton. Ticket packages to the festival, open to the public, range from $275-$425. Tickets to Foote's play, "The Traveling Lady," which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, cost $25. Seating is limited for all events.
Foote, who became Baylor's Visiting Distinguished Dramatist during 2002, worked with theater majors that fall and the following spring. In preparation for the March festival, he again will be in residence, this time to oversee the rehearsals of "The Traveling Lady," which Castleberry will direct. The play will be performed by professional actors who are members of the Actors' Equity Association -- an approach that will continue for other playwrights' works in coming years, Denman says.
"We're adding this production on top of our [Baylor] season, so it's not taking any opportunities away from the students. Instead, it offers them an opportunity that they've not had to get in there and rub elbows" with professional actors and directors, he says.
Hosting a festival associated with Foote will "let people know that Baylor theater is really on the map," Denman says. "Baylor has, for decades, had a very respectable, well-run, solid theater program. But it has been an unknown jewel, except to a few people."
Castleberry agrees: "Our connection with Horton -- needless to say -- has opened a great many doors in New York and has made it possible to do the kinds of things that will put us in the forefront nationally." Additionally, the collaboration sets the tone for playwrights who will be honored in subsequent festivals, he says. "He represents what I think Baylor really would want to be -- what they strive to be -- people who are connected to their faith. And Horton is that."
During the festival, Foote, Castleberry and Denman will announce the playwright who will be honored the following year. Plans for the third year include establishing an endowment for an up-and-coming playwright to be recognized during the event. Foote says there's only one thing he'll be looking for in that selection process -- talent. "And I think that's about it. I wouldn't put any limitations on it as long as we feel like it's someone who is talented and is serious about playwriting," he says.
Ultimately, the theater professors say they want the festival to enhance their department's goal of impacting American culture through the arts. "We really feel as Christians that there is an absolute calling for us to step to the forefront, for us to be the best practitioners that we can be ... so that we can bridge the gap between our secular culture and Christian culture," Denman says. "We don't want to be the best Christian theater. We want to be the best theater that happens to be Christian."
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