October 5, 2009
Playwright Craig Wright, known for his work on television's Dirty Sexy Money, Lost and Six Feet Under, understands how tough it is to make it on Broadway -- or off-Broadway -- when you're far from the bright lights of the Big Apple.
So he was intrigued by Baylor University theater department's chutzpah in tackling New York City with its 2006 off-Broadway production of a Horton Foote play.
"I was totally interested and impressed, having been a playwright who for many years labored in Minnesota, far from the center of American theater that New York is," Wright said.
Last year, when Baylor theater faculty members told him of their notion to produce Wright's gritty play The Unseen off-Broadway, "of course I said yes -- even though I was surprised anyone from Baylor took an interest in that very dark play," he said.
Next month, Wright will travel to Waco for Baylor's fourth semiannual Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival. Baylor's American Actors Company will present the university premiere of The Unseen in two invitation-only performances, reprising its off-Broadway March production at Cherry Lane Theatre.
The festival will be bittersweet, said Dr. Stan Denman, chair of Baylor's theater department. It will include a tribute to the late Pulitzer Prize winner Foote, who also won Oscars for his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. Foote, who attended some of Baylor's past festivals to offer encouragement and expertise, died in March at age 92.
But the event nonetheless will be a celebration of the nation's finest dramatists. Wright will mingle with theater professionals, newcomers and theater students and host discussions open to the public.
The event will include a performance of The Marcy & Zina Show by Broadway singer-songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, open to the public; readings of plays by Foote and Wright; and Late Night Under Construction, when budding playwrights will introduce their work.
The festival began as a "what if" between Denman and Dr. Marion Castleberry, a Baylor university professor of directing.
"I had a dream of an American playwrights' festival at Baylor; Marion had done his doctoral (dissertation) on Horton Foote," Denman said. "It was kind of like peanut butter and chocolate that we got together and said, 'This is a good idea.'
The two traveled to Foote's hometown of Wharton, Texas, to ask the playwright to lend his name -- and his blessing -- to a playwrights' festival.
"We had jalapeño burgers with him," Denman said. "He was a gracious man. He thought the festival was a lovely idea."
During the festival's first two years, before Foote's health worsened, "he sat in on every single rehearsal, and he'd edit and rewrite from the play he'd written 50 years before," Denman said. "He'd listen and say, 'Cut that line. That's a terrible line. Only a young playwright would say that.'
"You'd say, 'Mr. Foote . . .' and he'd say, 'Call me Horton.'"
Baylor's first off-Broadway effort by Baylor theater faculty and alumni was Foote's The Traveling Lady, nominated for a Drama Desk award for Outstanding Revival of a Play in 2006.
The subject matter of Wright's The Unseen is a sharp contrast to Foote's works, Denman said.
While much of Foote's play took place on a front porch in Texas in the early 1950s, Wright's play is set in a prison and contains violent imagery and adult language, Denman said.
"Craig Wright's work tends to be very complex, very edgy," Denman said. "Horton's was not edgy but evocative of a time gone by, which is very accessible to Texans."
The Unseen "might raise some eyebrows," Denman said. "Some people would struggle with it. But we believe it's fully within Baylor's Christian mission because of the deep, meaningful and ultimately faith-affirming themes within the play."
The New York Times praised the strong cast, while nytheatre.com applauded the "terrific, spellbinding performances from a first rate cast" and the play's "masterful direction."
In the drama, two men are held in nearby cells and tortured for years without knowing why by an unidentified regime. They are visited sometimes by a guard who abuses them but has "a crisis of conscience," Denman said. "He says, 'I never meant to be this kind of person.' "
One prisoner has a scientific mind; the other lives on faith.
"That duality is something we struggle with," Denman said. "But the men are incomplete without each other."
The prisoners alternate between hope for freedom and despair that it will never come. Then a third prisoner arrives, communicating only by tapping on the walls.
If audience members delve into the play, they will find symbolism for Christianity, Denman said.
Baylor will continue to take risks in its productions and festivals, Denman said.
"We're not about being a commercial success; we're about being a critical success," he said.
Wright thinks Baylor is well on its way.
"From the first rehearsal to opening night, the whole experience was immensely enriching," Wright said. "I learned new things about the play from their production."
WHAT: The Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival
WHEN: Nov. 5 to 7
WHERE: Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Building, 60 Baylor Ave., Baylor University campus in Waco, Texas
The Unseen, performed for an invited audience and season ticket holders on Nov. 5 and Nov. 7 in the 100-seat Theatre 11.
A $35 tribute to Foote and an award ceremony honoring Wright will be at 9 p.m. Nov. 5 after the performance of The Unseen.
The Marcy & Zina Show by Broadway musical singer-songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, will be performed at 8 p.m. Nov. 6 in the 350-seat Jones Theatre in the Hooper-Schaefer, followed by play readings.
COST: $150 for a festival package, which includes all daytime and evening events and performances. Tickets for The Marcy & Zina Show, which may be purchased without the package, are $25 each or $40 for two.
All daytime events are free to Baylor faculty, staff and students, but tickets must be purchased for evening performances and the award ceremony. The general public must register.
FOR A SCHEDULE OR TO REGISTER: Call (254) 710-1865.