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First-look drama

Fayetteville's TheatreSquared and The Rep partner to present The Arkansas New Play Fest in North Little Rock.

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Robert Ford talks with actors at last year's New Play Fest.
  • Robert Ford talks with actors at last year's New Play Fest.

The Arkansas New Play Fest's debut in Central Arkansas this weekend is all about new partnerships. For the first time, TheatreSquared, the Fayetteville-based theater company behind the festival, is partnering with The Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The Rep, in turn, currently in pre-production on "The 39 Steps," is allying for the first time with the Argenta Community Theater, who'll host the New Play Fest on Saturday and Sunday in North Little Rock.

The partnership grew out of The Rep artistic director Bob Hupp's desire to showcase new work, something he rarely has the opportunity to do in his main stage season, he said.

"I've always wanted The Rep to pay more attention to new plays, particularly plays that had something to do with Arkansas, either by Arkansans or thematically about Arkansas, and I also, simultaneously, was getting to know the folks up at TheatreSquared. Rather than reinvent the wheel here in Central Arkansas, I invited them to bring their new play festival down here to be produced by us."

Now in its third year, the New Play Fest offers an arrangement that's fairly common in the theater world, but unique to Arkansas: a showcase of new, work-in-progress plays by professional playwrights, staged in conjunction with professional actors and directors.

It's an experience akin to being in a focus group or watching a TV pilot, "designed to attract people who're interested in literature and the theater of new ideas," according to Hupp.

TheatreSquared's managing director, Martin Miller, said that while the festival set-up may inspire some trepidation among traditional theatergoers, it's easy to get wrapped up in the productions.

"When you come to one of these staged readings, the first thing you see is a bare stage with chairs and some music stands, which may initially make you think, 'Oh, what have I signed up for?' When the actors come into the theater, they come script in hand. But they interpret it with full intentions, and these are professional actors from here and from Chicago and New York. They have been working on the script for a week with the playwright and the director.

"Many patrons say afterwards, 'I very quickly forgot that there wasn't a set and there weren't costumes.' It's very raw storytelling that strips the theatrical process down to that basic element of story and character."

For sitting through a work-in-development, the audience members are rewarded at the end with an opportunity to tell the actors, directors and playwrights what they thought. "That [feedback] has a very real impact before a play goes onto real production," Miller said.

Playwright Werner Trieschmann (a frequent Times contributor), whose play "Disfarmer" hits the stage at the Argenta Community Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday, can attest to the importance of the festival's process. He's bringing "Disfarmer" to the festival for the second time. In 2009, TheatreSquared commissioned a play from him, and from the process emerged a 60-minute historical drama ("with funny moments," Trieschmann said), which shifts between a portrait of the titular eccentric Heber Springs photographer taking pictures of townsfolk and the speculative madness that erupted decades later in the town when New York dealers "discovered" the photos.

When TheatreSquared asked him this year if he had anything new to present, Trieschmann asked if he could bring "Disfarmer" back to add 30 more minutes of scenes, the length it needs to be if it has any hope of being picked up by professional theater companies, he said.

Among the other featured plays, "They Want" (4 p.m. Saturday), Minneapolis playwright Alan Berk's modern retelling of Aeschylus' trilogy "The Ortesia," centers on "a debt of vengeance forged by fateful choices made by the head of the household, the nation's powerful Minister of War;" New York playwright John Walch's "In the Book Of" (3 p.m. Sunday) re-imagines of The Book of Ruth in modern day Afghanistan and Mississippi; and "Look Away" (7 p.m. Sunday), TheatreSquared artistic director and Porter Prize winner Robert Ford's drama, set in rural Arkansas in the '30s. The play focuses on two African-American teen-agers who seek refuge from a lynch mob in the plantation home of an eccentric family.

All performances at the Argenta Community Theater, 405 Main St. in North Little Rock, will be followed by talk-back sessions with the playwright, director and actors. Tickets to each cost $7, or $20 for all four.

The Fayetteville edition of the New Play Fest begins on Thursday and Friday at the Walton Arts Center's Nadine Baum Studios, with the same actors, directors and plays, except for Robert Ford's "The Spiritualist," which will play only in Fayetteville. On Saturday and Sunday, the festival includes various improv and youth-oriented programming. Go to theatre2.org for a complete schedule.

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