James Still, playwright-in-residence at Indiana Repertory Theatre, has been named the New Voices in American Theatre playwright for the 19th annual William Inge Theatre Festival, to be held April 13-15.
The "New Voices" program began at the theatre festival in Independence, KS, in 1993 as a way to explore contributions of new and emerging playwrights by examining their work and inviting discussion in seminars.
Playwright A.R. Gurney will be given the Inge fest's Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre Award. Gurney is author of such plays as Love Letters, The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and Ancestral Voices.
Kansas native Still's farm drama, Amber Waves, completed a run at Indiana Rep (IRT) March 4, and will be read April 15 by a professional-and community cast at the Inge Festival, named after the famed Midwestern playwright of Bus Stop, Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba. "I am deeply honored to be receiving the 'New Voices in American Theatre' award," Still said in a statement. "I remember the first time I read Mr. Inge's play, Picnic -- I was in high school -- and how moved I was by the fact that he, too, was from a small town in Eastern Kansas. [Still is from Pomona, KS.] When I attended the University of Kansas, Inge's alma mater, I got to hold Inge's Best Screenplay Oscar for 'Splendor in the Grass.' Because of all these connections to William Inge, this award is more than just an honor; it feels like poetry."
Still is a current recipient of the TCG/Pew Charitable Trusts National Theatre Artist Grant for his residency at the IRT. Since July 1998, the IRT, the People's Light & Theatre Company in Pennsylvania and Still have been involved in an extensive, community-based collaborative new play development project to create a play that explores the scope and emotions of the 20th century through the stories of those who have lived it.
Still, whose plays include The Velocity of Gary, set his latest play, Amber Waves (Feb. 9-March 4 at IRT) on Indiana soil, focusing on a family losing a farm.
The world premiere play hit close to home for Still, 40, whose great grandparents came from Scandinavia and settled into a farm life in Pomona, KS. Though he was raised by a teacher father and a small-town banker mother, Still lived in a world of farming, a town of 800.
"My grandparents were farmers," Still told Playbill On-Line. "Like many plays, emotionally, it's very autobiographical."
Elements of the new work are based on stories Still heard growing up, or stories farmers told him when he was writing and researching.
The play is a two-act expansion of a short play he wrote 10 years ago. In the Indiana Rep staging, directed by the playwright, actor John Henry Redwood played a wise farmer and friend to a fortysomething couple facing the loss of their farm. Tim Grimm played the farmer, Mike, Jan Lucas was his wife, Penny. The children, meanwhile, are shielded from the real circumstances and they imagine a number of disasters during a difficult year.
"This is the fourth generation on this farm," Still said. "The play takes place over the course of a year. This is very important in a farm's life. We start in summer, in the middle of a drought, we go through harvest in the fall, the dead of winter and replanting in spring."
The production told the story partly in video, with an 18-by-24-foot barn wall serving as a screen for video images of the seasons, the crop, the landscape, family pictures and some vintage 8-mm film of farms in the 1940s.
Still has used video in the past, with such plays as And Then They Came for Me, a Holocaust oral history play. Still also wrote The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name), seen in New York in 1999 and in a film version released in 1999.
"[The family] are facing a difficult year, financially," Still said of Amber Waves, set on a southern Indiana corn and bean farm. "The drought creates a lot of problems, in terms of loans coming due. A fairly unreported story is how low farm prices are. It's about the hard choices this family has to make during this year. The parents' instinct to deal with this [in front of their kids] is to pretend nothing is wrong, but the 16 year-old [son] can smell a rat, and the 12 year-old [girl] starts to see it, also."
Still saw the play as a kind of "going home" for himself, exploring his roots.
"There hasn't been a lot theatre, plays, about farm life," Still observed. "My experience with what media and entertainment reflected back to me about rural America is things like 'Hee Haw' and 'Green Acres,' and that wasn't my life. That wasn't a life I recognized. I didn't know what that was."
Still's exposure to the stage in eastern Kansas was apprenticing at a summer stock theatre when he was 16 and working up the ranks to director. The venue was a former barn on a onetime farm, where Inge, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Tennessee Williams were played for rural audiences (curtain time: 8:27 PM, allowing farmers to work late with the sun).
"That was a magnificent experience," he said. "It was about making something happen out of nothing."
The cast of Amber Waves at IRT also included Mat Hostetler, Courtney Bolin and Kristen Cooler. Tim Grimm and partner Jason Wilber composed original music for the play.
-- By Kenneth Jones