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William McCann: Once worthy only of being ignored, Kentucky’s theatrical lights shine bright

Perhaps, once upon a time or in a galaxy far, far away, Kentucky’s theatre arts world was viewed from outside as insignificant and worthy only of being ignored. But our playwrights and theatres have always been artistic bright lights.

Charles Edward Pogue

Charles Edward Pogue, who, before he ‘retired’ to Georgetown ‘only’ managed to co-write or write some outstanding screenplays — The Fly, D.O.A., and Hound of the Baskervilles, among them — has become one of the state’s masters of the stage adaptation. His published adaptations include Moliere’s Tartuffe, Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, and Ibsen’s The Pretenders, all of which have been well received by critics, theatres, and audiences quite literally in productions coast to coast. And then there is his noir comedy Who Dunnit Darlin’, co-written with Larry Drake, which, a few summers ago had audiences laughing in Danville during its successful run at Pioneer Playhouse, and about a year later at a run at Lexington’s Studio Players.

In Barbourville, retired English and drama teacher Catherine Rhoden-Goguen has written May I Have Your Attention Please? A one-act published by Pioneer Drama 15 years ago, this stark play about teen suicide has been produced by high schools in 30 states, five Canadian provinces, and Ireland. It has won its producers numerous awards in high school drama festivals due to the power of its message and the relative simplicity of its technical requirements.

In Lexington, Ian Scott, founder of Antagonist Productions, produced the I Come From Festival, a festival of short plays all written by prisoners at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin. Some of the I Come From writers had been given readings at Actors Theatre of Louisville and productions in New York. But it was significant that it was the first festival of prisoner plays produced here in Kentucky.

In Northern Kentucky, there is a tremendous amount of new play development. NKU has the state’s only BFA in playwriting and biannually produces the YES Festival of new plays. Fort Thomas is home to both Phil Paradis and of the Fort Thomas Players. Paradis, while continuing to have success in having productions locally, in California, New York, and elsewhere is also the driving force behind the area’s writing group, Actors and Playwrights Collaborative. Meanwhile, the Fort Thomas Players have started a playwrights group which does both readings and productions of new works by member playwrights.

Other successful Kentucky playwrights include Michael Cochran of Paducah, this year’s winner of the American Association of Community Theatre new play contest for his full-length work Eternity; the play is being given premiers at theatres across the country this spring. Plays by student playwrights at Transylvania have been published by Dramatic Publishing.

Phil Paradis

Still, it is the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville which annually reintroduces America to Kentucky and new theatre. It was here that in the late 1970s that the world was introduced to Marsha Norman, whose plays Getting Out (1978) and ‘Night Mother (1984) were first produced at Actors Theatre. Other Kentucky playwrights introduced since at the Humana Festival include Diana Grisanti (2015), Basil Kreimendahl (2014), Jane Martin (1989), Steve Moulds (2012), Suzan-Lori Parks (2007), and Naomi Wallace (1995). And this year, Actors Theatre introduces Leah Nanako Winkler to Festival audiences.

Winkler’s play God Said This is the Festival’s breakout play. From Kamakura, Japan and Lexington, Kentucky, Winkler, during the current Festival, was announced as the 2018 winner of the Yale Drama Prize for God Said This, an honor that comes with a $10,000 prize and publication of her play.

This is not Winkler’s only play in development this year. In March, her play Hot Doctor Asian Husband was given a staged reading in Minneapolis by Theatre Mu, the group which had commissioned her to write it. Her play Two Mile Hollow runs in New York as part of the Pipeline Festival April 26-28th. And in January 2019, New York’s Primary Stages will be producing the Off-Broadway production of God Said This.

None of this success should be surprising. Beginning in 2014 with her plays Death for Sydney Black and Diversity Awareness Picnic, and Double Suicide At Ueno Park in 2015, she has been gathering notice. In 2016, Winkler has been well received for the world premiere of her play Kentucky at ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE/Page 73 Productions/Radio Drama Network, and its west coast premiere at East West Players in Los Angeles. The New York Times said “Kentucky marks the full-length debut of a distinctive new voice—mouthy, sly and bourbon sweet, with the expected kick.”

In recent months her years of hard work have culminated in her winning the first-ever Mark O’Donnell Prize from The Actors Fund and Playwrights Horizons; she was an inaugural recipient of a commission from Audible’s Emerging Playwrights Fund, and Ms. Winkler is a Jerome New York Fellow at the Lark. All of which is shorthand for: Leah N. Winkler is Kentucky’s latest bright light of the theatrical world.

Maureen Dallas Watkins wrote ‘Chicago’

Yet, historically, Kentucky has produced Broadway luminaries. Between 1896 and 2017 twelve Kentucky playwrights have had 51 Broadway productions that have now run for more than 17,450 performances. The most-produced playwright was John Patrick with 11 plays. Best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning Tea House of the August Moon, 1953, his plays The Curious Savage (1950) and Everybody Loves Opal (1961) even now are staples of community theatre.

Other Kentucky playwrights include Marsha Norman and Suzan-Lori Parks, both of whom have won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Norman won for ‘Night Mother. Parks won in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog. But George C. Wolfe is clearly the state’s most versatile thespian who had had four plays produced on Broadway (including 1996’s Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk and 2016’s Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed) but has also directed and produced a great many more plays both on and off Broadway (including Angels In America—both Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, 1993) as well as films for Hollywood (Biloxi Blues, 1988) and television (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2017, for HBO).

Still, Kentucky’s most under-appreciated (and successful) playwright might well be Louisville native and Transylvania graduate Maurine Dallas Watkins (1896-1969). In December 1926 her comic play Chicago opened on Broadway for a 172 performance run. Later the play was made into successful movies, including Roxie Hart (1942) which starred Ginger Rogers. But the play really reached its success almost 50 years after its premiere when it was adapted into the Kander and Ebb musical theatre classic: Chicago: The Musical.

William H. McCann, Jr. a playwright, poet, editor, and publisher who edits the Kentucky Theatre Yearbook. He lives near Corinth.

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