Wilbury Theatre’s Festival of New Works

Wilbury_ServantRhode Island provides audiences with hundreds of opportunities each year to see live theater being performed. However, it is far rarer to be able to see it being created in front of your eyes. This weekend, The Wilbury Theatre Group is offering just such a glimpse with their annual Festival of New Works.

Throughout the year, Wilbury hosts a new works program called Studio W, which produces workshops and staged readings of works in progress. Now in its third year, the Festival of New Works was created as an opportunity for curious audiences to see new plays in various stages of development.

According to Wilbury’s director of new works, Meredith Healy, the festival serves as an opportunity to witness a play “from page to stage.” “We hope that showing audiences plays at different stages of development will give them insight into how playwrights work, and how theater is created,” Healy said.

The centerpiece of the festival is a re-imagining of The Servant of Two Masters, a 350-year-old Commedia dell’Arte work (Wilbury’s version is listed as The Servant of 2 Masters). This classic tale of lost love and mistaken identity has inspired a vast array of artists over the years, ranging from Dario Fo to Bugs Bunny. This new production, staged by Wilbury resident artist Brien Lang, puts what he calls a “very Wilbury twist” on the show with a mix of slapstick and social conscience, all set to music.

Wilbury resident artist Jeff Hodge, fresh from his successful run at last summer’s Fringe Festival (as well as his remarkable performance in Hype Man -ed.), is remounting his mixed-media show Elbow Deep’s book of Historic Not-non-Fiction. This crowd favorite features the comedy of Hodge’s Elbow Deep Media to present a wide variety of hilarious scenes, including the live “taping” of a cable access advice column show, and much more.

For staged readings, this year’s festival features The Recycling Party!, or The Fish, a new work by Wilbury playwright-in-residence Darcie Dennigan. This absurdist piece “peels back the collective anxiety about climate change to reveal the absurdity of the present.”

Finally, the festival is rounded out by The Mess Jacket, a classic comedy of manners based on P.G. Wodehouse’s novel, Right Ho, Jeeves by local playwright David Schrag.

If you are struck by the sheer variety of the shows featured in this year’s festival, you are not alone. “This was a very happy coincidence!” said Healy. “I am excited that the festival has shows of varying styles. It’s great that we have a little something for everyone.”

But as enjoyable as it will be to attend and watch these shows, it might even be more rewarding to participate in their evolution. More than any other artistic medium, theater is a living entity. Playwrights and performers can craft and fine-tune a work for as long and as much as they want, but until they’re able to perform it in front of a live audience, they simply have no idea if any of it actually works. For that reason, seeing a new work gives the viewer a chance to see something few others have ever seen before, while simultaneously providing the creative team with the chance to gauge reactions and opinions about the work as a whole, and specific lines and scenes in particular.

As far as Meredith Healy is concerned, this might be one of the most unique aspects of attending the Festival. “[It] presents a unique opportunity for our audiences to connect directly with the playwrights. All of the playwrights will be present at the readings and workshops. This gives our artists an opportunity to interact with the audience, and gives the audience an opportunity to share their thoughts about the show. I think it is exciting to be included in the development of a new work, and I hope our audiences will enjoy getting to see pieces in more developmental stages.”

Finally, for a city and state as proud of its artists as we are (we are the Creative Capital, after all), Wilbury’s Festival of New Works offers a rare opportunity to support Rhode Islanders. As Healy put it, “This event provides RI-ers a unique opportunity to support local artists and talent. As I mentioned before, all of our playwrights live and work in Rhode Island. I think it is critically important to support and nurture the outstanding local talent that our state possesses.”

So, whether you’re interested in classical or modern shows, established works or new, musicals or straight plays, or just want to see some of the best that our state has to offer, make some time this weekend to catch the remainder of the Festival of New Works, hosted by the Wilbury Theatre Group.

The Wilbury Theatre Group presents the Festival of New Works, through April 27. For tickets and showtimes, visit thewilburygroup.org

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