New Plays, Good Food, Great Plains: A Proven Recipe

While other new-work development hubs have dried up, the Great Plains Theatre Commons continues its convivial creative tradition with local and national support.

By Leo Adam Biga for American Theatre

Theatre in crisis gave way to the promise of a new canon at the latest Great Plains Theatre Commons New Play Conference, May 26-June 1 in Omaha. Works by 10 playwrights from 600-plus submissions got staged readings, each with a dramaturg, director, designer, and feedback from visiting respondents, many of them former GPTC playwrights.

Being in service to developing new plays, GPTC manager Quinn Metal Corbin said, is more valuable now than ever with The Lark, Sundance Theatre Lab, and Humana Festival no more. “It’s an increasingly rare opportunity to have that time and space to work on a new play in this way,” Corbin said. GPTC did pare back its PlayLabs—but not due to budget constraints, Corbin said, but to give more attention to each playwright and play. It makes for an intensive experience.

“Ten plays in a week is a fantastic opportunity to drink from the new-play firehose,” said first-time attendee Amy Guerin, a University of Alabama-Huntsville theatre professor. “I was told it was the place to be for new-play development. These are emerging playwrights. Audiences are getting in on the ground floor of these careers. What I hope to bring back to my students is an even larger connection with the theatre world outside of our little program and our region so that they feel more connected to the ecosystem.”

Said freelance designer Brenda Davis, a first-time participant who expects to be back, “I feel like I have gotten a good look at the future voices of American theatre. I know these plays will have a life after this.” 

An 11th featured playwright, Harrison David Rivers, enjoyed a full-circle moment with his drama Sweet, which explores sisterhood in a Southern Black family. Workshopped in Omaha in 2015, it was produced at the National Black Theatre in Harlem in 2016. This year it found a full staging in the Omaha conference’s PlayFest series, reuniting Rivers with director Denise Chapman. Rivers said he found it “meaningful” to bring back a work partly developed in a region he’s originally from (Kansas) and still resides in (St. Paul, Minn.).

“When you think about new-play development you’re usually thinking about the coasts or Chicago,” said Rivers. “So I think it’s special that it’s solidly in the middle of the country.”

A reading of Kendra Ann Flournoy’s “Bambiland” at Great Plains Theatre Commons. (Photo by Thomas Grady)

The 2024 plays explored themes of grieving, coming home, identity, and connection. Explained GPTC director Kevin Lawler, “Among the things readers are asked to look for is plays that are courageous.” This year, he added, “You felt that deeply.”

GPTC community connector Ellen Struve noted “strong, diverse world creation,” from the immigration limbo of Chloé Hung’s Alien of Extraordinary Ability to urban Detroit’s ravaged housing environs in Kendra Ann Flournoy’s Bambiland, from the multiverse of Ian August’s All the Emilies in All the Universes to the time ripples of Regan Moro’s burn for you.

Workshops and panels rounded out the programming. Panels included dramaturgy and design shop talks and the “liberation creation ideology” of a new group, Home by Noir. GPTC’s Young Dramatists got a primetime slot to shine. “We’re trying to support, as much as we can, a new wave of young theatremakers,” Lawler said. 

“We try not to be too prescriptive,” said Corbin. “It’s more about having the discussions the people in the room want to have. It allows for exploration you don’t always have time for in the ‘real world.’ Exploration is key to new work and collaboration.”  

The conference mostly unfolded at Metropolitan Community College’s historic Fort Omaha campus, whose bistro, patios, gardens, and lawns encouraged pop-up confabs among peers. 

“A lot happens in those unscheduled gatherings,” Lawler said, “because when people get here they’re away from their home environment and they can unplug and really be here, devoting more time and energy than they normally can to working on their art. So conversations are a big deal, because we can’t get everything into the response and rehearsal sessions.”

PlayLab playwrights at this year’s Great Plains Theatre Commons. Top row: Kendra Ann Flournoy, Ian August, Adrienne Dawes, Kate Mickere, Melissa Maney, and Alex Lubischer. In front: Vinecia Coleman, Chloé Hung, Regan Moro, and Patrick Vermillion. (Photo by Quinn Metal Corbin)

Read the full article from American Theatre here.