New Works Festival Ready For Encore

(Front) Lauren Shouse, René D. Copeland, Steve Dietz, Nate Eppler; (Back) Kenley Smith, Michael Erickson, and Andrew Kramer.Tennessee Repertory Theatre already has a hit on its hands with the Ingram New Works Festival – two shows developed here are now enjoying Broadway and Off-Broadway runs in New York. So what do they do for an encore?

For one thing, they’ve cast a wider net for the talented playwrights who are providing four plays for the festival’s 2012 edition, looking outside this region for some of the participants. Once again their New Works Fellow is a highly acclaimed theater practitioner.

And with Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn’s The Columnist now on Broadway with John Lithgow, and Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner John Patrick Shanley’s  Storefront Church gracing Off-Broadway courtesy of the David Mamet/William H. Macy-founded Atlantic Theater Company, who knows what legs the works of this year’s festival may have in the future? New Works Fellow Steven Dietz (Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Yankee Tavern) and his colleagues may well continue the trend.

A Talented Foursome

Nate EpplerNashville playwright Nate Eppler (Long Way Down) is spending his third year in the New Works Lab program. Joining the very talented Eppler during this past season were gifted writers Kenley Smith, Michael Erickson and Andrew Kramer.

Smith is based in Virginia, while Erickson calls St. Louis home and Midwestern-roots Kramer spends much of his time in the Big Apple. Eppler and his colleagues bring four distinct voices to the festival, and along with Dietz they make a fantastic five, according to festival director and Tennessee Rep Artistic Associate Lauren Shouse.

“They really dug deep and I think their conversations really pushed each playwright in a good way,” she says. “(The lab) was not only a safe place but also one where they raised the bar for each other.”

The group bonded during sessions that were held at regular intervals beginning in September. Dietz then met the foursome individually and collectively to poke, probe and ponder the works each was developing.

“We have four very, very, very different voices and four very different plays,” Smith says. “There was nothing competitive about it. …We just do the best plays that we can as we follow our very, very, very different muses.”

Michael Erickson“It’s been terrific. Every aspect of this has worked so well,” Erickson says. “The fellow playwrights and the actors we’ve worked with have really bonded over several months with meetings, readings and plenty of good feedback.

“Usually when you work on a new play with a theater you get one or two readings…and you don’t really get to develop a relationship with others and develop a level of trust where someone tells you something you don’t want to hear and you believe them.

“Everyone’s interest here is to make the work better. This working model is just brilliant. It works so well.”

And Then Came a Fifth

And this mutual admiration society definitely extends to Dietz.

“One of the powerful things about him is that although he came to be our mentor he approached the room as one of our contemporaries,” Eppler says. “So it was five playwrights working on these plays together, and there was something really empowering about that.”

Andrew Kramer“He was great. He was so engaged,” Erickson says. “He read our plays before he got here and had really great insights. That was a very intense week – everyday reading, reading and reading. It never got personal. It was all about the work, and he was so upbeat and positive.

“He’s an encyclopedia of theater knowledge. He’s not only a great playwright; he’s a director who directs all over the country. So we got two for the price of one – not only this wonderful playwright, but a really great director who could say something like, ‘Oh, you don’t really need all those blackouts. Just go on and tell your story.’”

“(Dietz) is a teacher in a way I’ve not experienced before,” Kramer says. He has a really unique way of helping writers…it was intense and raw, and I felt there was more freedom because he could understand what we were thinking about from a playwright’s perspective.”

Dietz returns the compliments. “I have had a fantastic experience working with this year’s four playwrights in residence,” he says.  “I found their plays surprising and diverse – and I found the writers themselves to be open to rigorous ongoing work on the already very accomplished plays they brought into the room.  I am eager to see what becomes of each of these writers and their work.”

Appreciating the Setup

The four have been very pleased with the work they’ve been able to do – only Erickson came with a first-draft of his play; the others basically started with little more than ideas or notes – and with the New Works Lab setup.

“The support we receive is just remarkable,” Eppler says. “…To be able to meet on a weekly basis and to have the support of the Nashville arts community – just about every actor in town comes through that (NPT) door to read the plays as well as having Lauren and (Tennessee Rep Producing Artistic Director) René (Copeland, who will be helming three of the festival works) working on them as well. It’s just a huge, huge benefit…and so energizing.”

Kenley Smith“It’s been the most complete collaboration I’ve ever had,” Smith says. “…To really work with this intensity, this kind of peer group and this level of support was cool.

“It’s all about growth; it’s all about getting these new voices out there.”

The festival wraps next week with a three-day reading run of Dietz’ play Rancho Mirage. To quote from the Tennessee Rep release:

Rancho Mirage is a bitingly funny black comedy about what happens when the fictions that hold our lives together are exposed. In 2012 America — where affluence is perhaps our greatest mirage — three couples, long-time friends, find themselves at a dinner party where everyone finally decides to tell the truth. What’s left when youth, dreams and the last bottle of wine is gone?”

Dietz’s take? “I wrote Rancho Mirage as a dark comedy about the hidden parts of our friendships and the lies we tell to maintain our fictions with each other,” he says.  “I suppose it’s also a play about seeing the end or edge of our dreams … and being left — good or bad – with the life that remains.”

The Plays

What follows are synopses of the works in this year’s festival provided by Tennessee Rep accompanied by quotes the four playwrights-in-residence gave ArtsNash during interviews:

Larries by Nate Eppler (

Do you know who your husband is? Wanda sends her husband Larry an ultimatum by email; she wants to have another baby or she wants a divorce. Larry doesn’t respond to the email and when Wanda gets home to find out why, she discovers more than one Larry. And then another Larry shows up. And then another. The multiverse is cracking like a windshield, and there are Larries everywhere. Which Larry is her Larry? And if she finds him, does she still want him?

Eppler says: “The play is about the notion of choice and the notion of relationship. One of the characters in my play says that choice creates the illusion that you’re responsible for all the things you do and for all of the things you do not do. I think that’s true, that choice makes us feel there’s a loss even when that’s not the case.”

Empires of Eternal Void by Kenley Smith (

Locked in a transparent cell with a seemingly delusional young soldier, a military chaplain attempts to learn the truth about a violent, shocking crime. But as the session unfolds, punctuated by threats and even torture, the chaplain’s sense of purpose and reality begins to shift. Are the prisoner’s conversations with God the ravings of a disturbed soul, or the revelations of an enlightened one? Is the crime an act of brutality, or of grace? Who really runs the operation, and is there a method to the madness?

Smith says: “It’s really a different play for me. All the writing took place within the lab this year. It existed when I applied for the program only in some basic notes. …A lot of my recent plays have been about the question of identity. …What does it mean in a broader sense to be human, to be a part of civilization? Are we falling away from, or losing our grasp of, what’s essential for us in the way we treat each other? Those are some of the questions I wrestled with as this play developed.”

Crying for Lions by Andrew Kramer (

Extinction. Listen to the word and how it slips out of the mouth. A cock back of the tongue, a knock of the teeth, a hard slide… Rae and Shane are a young couple preparing for the birth of their first child. When an important man from Shane’s past shows up at their house, their surfacing fears and apprehensions spiral out of control while a large stalking Mountain Lion won’t leave them alone. Crying for Lions asks questions about what it means to be a parent and a child in a complex and brutal world filled with animals who act like people and people who act like animals.

Kramer says: “Crying for Lions is about a couple who are preparing for their first child. A stranger shows up from their past and throws everything out of whack. …It’s a play about fear, pass transgressions and responsibility. It’s about being a parent and being a child. …It’s a pretty dark comedy, but we laughed a lot during the journey…and the New Works Lab readings and rehearsals.”

Honor Student by Michael Erickson (

A student in a college creative writing class writes a story about a student, much like himself, who brings a gun to class and begins shooting his classmates and instructor, much like the actual people in the class. Fearful that the story is a blueprint for a real shooting, the instructor alerts university officials and tries to have the student removed from her class. But the student fights back. He argues she is trying to censor his freedom of speech, and that she is biased against him. The instructor is soon on the defensive. Her career and her reputation are on the line. Has she overreacted? Or is there something deeper, more dangerous lurking here?

Erickson says: “It’s a story in which these people find themselves in a profound conflict about the ethics of a certain situation and they all believe they’re right. …It’s an ethical quandary.”

Ingram New Works Festival LogoTennessee Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the 2012 Ingram New Works Festival runs from today (Wednesday, May 30) through June 9. Readings from today through June 6 are at Tennessee Rep’s Rehearsal Hall (NPT Studio A, 161 Rains Ave.); readings June 7-9 are at Nashville Children’s Theatre (25 Middleton St.). Tickets (free for all 2011-12 season subscribers; $10 minimum donation for non-subscribers ($5 minimum donation for students or Actors Equity members with valid ID) may be reserved by calling (615) 244-4878 or emailing represervations[at] Free Parking for the festival is available at both locations.

Tennessee Rep is live streaming the New Works Playwright’s readings at #NEWPLAY TV on May 31, June 3, 5, and 6th at 7pm. Those with mobile devices can visit this link on those occasions. Those owning iPhone or iPad devices can download the free Livestream app here.

Here is the full schedule:

At Tennessee Rep’s Rehearsal Hall (NPT Studio A)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
7:00 PM
by Nate Eppler

Thursday, May 31, 2012
7:00 PM
Empires of Eternal Void
by Kenley Smith

Friday, June 1, 2012
7:00 PM
Crying for Lions
by Andrew Kramer

Saturday, June 2, 2012
7:00 PM
Honor Student
by Michael Erickson

Sunday, June 3, 2012
7:00 PM
Crying for Lions
by Andrew Kramer

Monday, June 4, 2012
7:00 PM
Empires of Eternal Void
by Kenley Smith

Tuesday, June 5, 2012
7:00 PM
Honor Student
by Michael Erickson

Wednesday, June 6, 2012
7:00 PM
by Nate Eppler

Steven DietzAt Nashville Children’s Theatre

June 7–9, 2012
7:00 PM
Rancho Mirage
by Steven Dietz

*All artwork and photos courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (