Five former playwriting students have plays in the KC Fringe Festival
Today, their plays are entertaining KC Fringe Fest audiences. But not too long ago, the five playwrights were students in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theatre’s playwriting courses, working through re-write after re-write as they crafted compelling plays.
Playwright Frank Higgins runs the university’s playwriting courses. Over the course of the 11-day, anything-goes arts festival, he has attended two of his students’ plays. He hopes to attend the remaining three before the KC Fringe Festival ends on Sunday, July 29.
It’ll be an odd mix of performances, even by KC Fringe Fest standards. In “Invention of the Monster,” by Kyle Browning, a writer struggles to compose his next best seller. “Ice Cream Social…. Issues” by Natalie Liccardello showcases a dysfunctional family’s attempt at an intervention. “Pilgrimage” by Ry Kincaid is a rock musical based on “The Canterbury Tales,” and Scott Cox’s “Buck Hoss” tells the story of two preachers as they fight for power. A corporate retreat goes horribly, murderously wrong in Pete Bakely’s “Skillet Tag.
Though their styles are clearly different, there is one common thread – they were polished in UMKC’s playwriting courses.
Outside the classroom, Lecturer Higgins is best known as the author of “The Sweet By ‘n’ By” which was produced with Tony-winner Blythe Danner and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow; and “Black Pearl Sings!” which was produced with Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins.
Inside the classroom, he’s known for his emphasis on collaborative, workshop-style feedback.
He also knows how to cut the fat.
“Frank has a laser eye for junk,” Bakely said. “He is really, really good at going into a script and helping you scissor down all the things that aren’t needed.”
That laser eye has tightened Cox’s writing significantly.
“You always find that you overwrite. It can be simple things like a tiny word,” Cox said. “I limit my scripts to what absolutely needs to be there.”
In playwriting, “junk” often comes in the form of words that look good on paper, but fall flat when read aloud.
“It matters that it’s not only pretty on the page, but that it’s plausible coming out of someone’s mouth,” Liccardello said.
Liccardello knows a thing or two about the importance of authentic dialogue. She co-wrote “Ice Cream Social… Issues” with her sister. Together, they created a play about imperfect characters and imperfect relationships, all in what Liccardello calls “a thinly-veiled poke” at society’s vilification of certain vices.
To make their writing feel real, the sisters would start with a bit of truth from their own lives, and go from there. Bakely used that same approach when he created “Skillet Tag,” a play about a corporate retreat gone wrong. In the play, co-workers literally tag one another with skillets.
Before he came to UMKC for his MA in Theatre, Bakely spent 15 years in the corporate world, where he endured his fair share of corporate retreats.
“It wasn’t like that at work,” Bakely said, laughing. “But it came from a real place.”
From first drafts to rehearsal edits, the five playwrights have reached arguably the best part of the process. They’re seeing their scripts come to life, and they’re hearing a live audience’s reaction.
The feedback has been somewhat surprising. Sometimes big jokes don’t get laughs, while little throw-away lines do. Sometimes there’s appropriate tension, other times a scene will fall flat. These reactions, ultimately, are the most valuable feedback of all.
For Kincaid, the author of the “Canterbury Tales” musical, the feedback has inspired confidence.
“Maybe there’s life beyond the Fringe Festival for this play,” Kincaid said.