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Available Light Theatre’s Next Stage Initiative Showcases New Voices

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Available Light Theatre’s Next Stage Initiative Showcases New VoicesPhoto of the new wing of the Columbus Museum of Art. Photo by Brad Feinknopf.
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Over their ten-plus years, one of the most important things Available Light has done is showcase new voices and bring new work to Columbus. The most visible manifestation of that mission is their Next Stage Initiative. Every year, Next Stage Initiative is one of my favorite parts of the cultural calendar and essential viewing for anyone with a taste for theatre in its purest form. I sat down with Matt Slaybaugh and Jen Schlueter to talk about this year’s iteration.

After years at the Riffe Center, Next Stage Initiative relocates to the Columbus Museum of Art’s Ready Room. Slaybaugh said, “We love partnering with the museum. We seem to be developing an interesting thing where they bring us in and let us experiment.” At the forefront of this was a desire to “Get away from some of the higher production values [in past years]. All the works we worked on were great, but when we looked at our use of resources, we wanted to bring it back to working with the playwright, working with the actors and director. Trying to develop the play.”

Also to that end, this year they brought in a third co-producer, Karie Miller. Miller, a Ph.D. student at OSU and member of Sideshow Theatre Company, co-directed Ohio State’s collection of shorts Standing on Ceremony and directed and starred in one of my favorite moments from past Next Stage Initiatives, Carrie Barrett’s The Burden of Not Having a Tail. Schlueter said, “[Miller] was instrumental in bringing together a group of students and vetting a larger pool of plays.” Slaybaugh concurred, “Every year Jen and I say we need to start sooner, get more organized, and look at more plays. This year we actually did that, because of Karie.”

Reviewing plays from all over the country based on their network of contacts, unsolicited submissions year round, and playwrights they were interested in, Schleuter said, “We were really trying to capture [playwrights] at that right moment for what Next Stage Initiative can offer. We tried to tap into writers who were pre-first big production or whose plays were at the right place where a workshop in Columbus makes sense before taking it back to Philly or Chicago.” Slaybaugh also said, “Shilarna [Stokes] was instrumental in helping us give directors more support. She has so much experience as a director in New York that she used to help us turn scripts into legible readings. Useful readings the playwright can gain from, and the audiences can enjoy. She spent some time with directors and all of them said that three-hour session was very useful.”

Playwright/songwriter Drew Eberly. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

Playwright/songwriter Drew Eberly. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

Weekend One:

  • Dear Piqua by Drew Eberly. Company member Eberly’s best known for his nuanced performances in shows like Red Herring’s Assassins and AVLT’s Bobrauschenbergamerica and direction of pieces like History Boys and How We Got On. But over the years, he’s also made a name for himself as a singer-songwriter, opening for artists like Scott Lucas (Local H). Schlueter and Slaybaugh said, “It’s a new play with music. He wrote an album of songs about home and leaving the city you love. He workshopped the songs six months ago then began work on the piece by soliciting letters from people about their hometowns and decisions to leave.” This is directed by Audrey Rush (Adrenaline Theater Group). 8:00 p.m., Friday, February 17, with a talkback after.
  • Give It All Away by Calamity West. West is a Chicago-based writer Next Stage Initiative has been circling for some time. The Chicago Tribune calls West, “one of the most talented of the youthful Chicago playwrights of the moment.” A production of her Common Hatred (directed by co-producer Karie Miller) was referred to as “Smart and deep without any treacle. References to relationships and memories are given sharp and realistic dialogue,” by Chicago Theatre Beat. Schlueter called this riff on a Dylan-esque character called The Artist one of her favorite plays they’ve done in this festival. Directed by Jessie Boettcher from Wild Goose Creative and Otterbein. 8:00 p.m. Saturday, February 18.
  • Laura Days, or Little House in the Big City by Emily Dendinger. Iowa grad Dendinger has worked with LiveWire and Sideshow in Chicago, The Navigators in NYC (with Still Quiet from last year’s Next Stage Initiative), and twice won the Theatre Masters National Play Competition. Schleuter said, “This is a look at a young woman in love with the Little House on the Prarie Books and uses magic to move between the books and the modern day.” Directed by Elizabeth Wellman from OSU. 2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 19, with a talkback after.

Weekend Two:

  • Matter Out of Place by James Ijames. Philadelphia-based writer and director Ijames has been nominated for a Barrymore for Outstanding New Play and been awarded the Pew Fellowship as well as being produced in Atlanta and Gloucester as well as Philly. Broad Street Review called his work, “A dramatic mirror held right up to the face of America — warts, erasures, distortions, layers of truth, and all,” and quoted the Philadelphia Inquirer as “[He] has crafted a superbly written, emotionally compelling, and morally challenging play. How challenging? About halfway through his 80-minute one-act, I no longer wanted to review it.” Directed by Shilarna Stokes who worked with Soho Rep and Cherry Lane in NYC before coming to OSU. 8:00 p.m. Friday, February 24.
  • Cellular by Joe Kopyt. This OSU student was described by Schlueter as “As strong a director and writer as he is an actor,” referencing his astonishing performances in a host of productions. “If you like Caryl Churchill, you’ll love this play. It’s very telegraphic and compressed. It’s about missed connections, big and small.” Directed by Yolanda Board who returns after directing the exploration into post-traumatic stress Rust on Bone a couple of years prior. 8:00 p.m. Saturday, February 25, with a talkback after.
  • The Armor Plays: Cinched and Strapped by Selina Fillinger. The first time Next Stage Initiative has done a suite of paired plays at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Chicago-based writer Fillinger, a winner of the Judith Barlow Award, was recently profiled by the Chicago Tribune. The tagline pulled from these two plays by the producers is “I think tonight we’re all going to spend some time snuggled up with our mistakes.” Schlueter said these plays are, “About physical style, the ways in which we’re compressed. One’s set in the past and one in the future, they’re built to speak to each other.”

Next Stage Initiative runs Friday through Sunday from February 17 through 26. All performances are Pay What You Want. For more info, please visit avltheatre.com/shows/next-stage-2017.

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