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Available Light’s Next Stage Initiative Returns

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Available Light’s Next Stage Initiative Returns
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For true theatre connoisseurs in Columbus, there isn’t a better time of year than Available Light’s Next Stage Initiative. As with last year, the core producing duo of Available Light Artistic Director Matt Slaybaugh and for/word company Founder and Director Jennifer Schlueter are joined by Karie Miller, and this festival of brand-new work returns to the Columbus Museum of Art.

Next Stage Initiative represents the glinting knife-edge of Available Light’s mission statement. New voices to Columbus, within and outside of our borders, presenting work at a stage being cracked open. Sometimes, this is the first reading to an audience the work gets, in others, it’s the first outing outside of New York or Chicago. It’s always an invigorating grab bag. This is the freshest work in town on its way to whatever comes next. I spoke with Schlueter and Slaybaugh about this streamlined sixth edition.

“We have really loved the compressed energy of a two week six playwright festival, but we’ve felt we were spreading our attention too thin and wanted to offer more support to fewer writers,” Schlueter said. “We are also actively seeking writers who are at a stage prior to their first big commission or landing of an agent—we really want to nurture writers at that early phase, and I think we’ve succeeded at that this year. Finally, we’ve tried the ‘play it forward’ strategy this year, asking writers we’ve worked with in the past to recommend someone at that phase in their career.” She continued, about the third piece of this producing team, “I think [Karie Miller’s] ethos of hospitality and support really suffuses this whole thing now.”

Slaybaugh expanded on ‘play-it-forward’: “Selina Fillinger (who had a two-part play in last year’s festival) wrote about Jared Sprowls and said ‘Jared Sprowls is an incredible actor/director/dancer/drag performer/writer. His work runs the gamut in terms of genre, often incorporating drag and queer and/or feminist themes. I’d say his forte is farce, spectacle, and work that tips into the absurd.’ We reached out, and Jared sent Mistress/Goddess/Queen, and it was among the most intriguing plays we looked at this year.”

Sprowls is the most well-known of this year’s writers with his “queening of Crucible-era theater” (Time Out New York), The Salem Bitch Trials, having a celebrated Off-Broadway run. He’s paired with Available Light Artistic Director Eleni Papaleonardos as director in what sounds like a match made in heaven.

The play-it-forward concept also brought AVLT’s Tar by Jason Beehler. Beehler’s an attorney with a background in writing and theatre, and familiar as a board member to anyone who’s read a MadLab program. 

“I first met Jason Beehler in the days when he acted in several Red Herring shows at the Short North Playhouse, oh so many years ago,” Slaybaugh said. “Jason is now a trial lawyer, and he was emotionally compelled to write “Tar” when he learned about the growing opioid crisis in Central Ohio (and beyond.) He asked John Dranschak to look at the play, and I’m grateful that John suggested it for Next Stage. This is exactly what we’re looking for – a timely, promising, relevant play, still in its development stage, and we’re extra excited that it’s from a local writer. I have high hopes for the future of this work.”

John Dranshak is one of Columbus’s finest directors, mounting rapturous productions of Merrily We Roll Along with AVLT and Assassins with Red Herring.

Writer-director Karie Miller’s Four People closes the festival. Karie directed and starred in Carrie Barrett’s The Burden of Not Having a Tail, one of my all-time favorite plays at a Next Stage Initiative. 

“Karie is a genius,” Schleuter said. “We’re featuring her own work this year, as part of her ambitious dissertation project in hospitality and performance, so we’ve created a space for her to experiment within Next Stage.”

Cody Troyan’s Dogged Song opens the festival. I believe I saw Cody read some intriguing poems a few years ago alongside his sister, Cassandra, so it should be fantastic catching up with his voice. He’s paired with Linnea Bond as a director. Bond’s blown me away in things like a roller-coaster-fast Romeo and Juliet and, more recently, Viscera, a performance art retrospective at the OSU Urban Arts Space.

Slaybaugh told an anecdote that sums up the appeal of Next Stage Initiative: “Last year on the final Sunday, (when we had two performances) we talked to a lot of museum patrons who approached our table to find out what was going on. Among them was a trio of young women who seemed genuinely intrigued, but said: ‘we’ll see.’ They asked lots of questions about what a play reading would be like. They had driven down from Michigan to visit Columbus for the weekend and came to the museum in part because it was free on Sunday. Anyway, they loved the show and really liked interacting in the talkback. They said their goodbyes and headed back to Michigan.

“Except they didn’t… At 5:45 they reappeared at the museum. They’d had such a good experience at the 2 p.m. show (and they wanted to know what happened next) they decided to stay in town. They sat in the front row and, suffice to say, they were really into it. They were really lovely people and the cast appreciated such effusive audience members. They were all hugging at the end of the night.

“It was a perfect example of why this collaboration is important. There’s no one randomly walking around the Riffe, or any other theater in town, who might spontaneously decide to try something new. And what’s more, the museum’s free admission and AVLT’s pay what you want policy also made it possible. Being at the museum made room for serendipity, and helped new patrons discover a love of theatre.”

Next Stage Initiative takes place at the Columbus Museum of Art. Showtimes and descriptions are below. All shows are Pay What You Want. For more information, visit the Available Light website.

Thursday, February 15 at 8 p.m.
Dogged Song
Written by Cody Troyan
Directed by Linnea Bond

We’ve already waited for Godot, now we’ve got to answer to Bossman. In this bizarro dark comedy, Rank and Foul are a pair of dog executioners with an ambitious dreamto become human executioners. Slapstick, banter, and blood abound.

Friday, February 16 at 8 p.m.
Written by Jared Sprowls
Directed by Eleni Papaleonardos

Monica is going through changes, and so is Hera, the goddess of marriage. After a newsworthy break-up, everyone has advice for Monica – her friends, her mother, even the cashier at the grocery store, but who can she trust? Goddess or not, it’s tough to find true compassion, and tougher still to figure out how to really move on.

Saturday, February 17 at 8 p.m.
Written by Jason Beehler
Directed by John Dranschak

Tar is a narrative history of the modern day opium trade, right here in Columbus, Ohio. From Ancient Greece to Portsmouth in the 90s and from the clinics to the locker rooms to the emergency room, all the the key players are here in a story inspired by much too real events.

Sunday, February 18 at 2 p.m.
Four People
Written and Directed by Karie Miller

If you’ve ever thrown a party, you know the dread that accompanies the planning: “What if no one shows up?” FOUR PEOPLE are siblings one and all, strangers too. There’s a party and no one shows up. There’s a life and nothing happens. Or maybe it’s a party overflowing with everyone and it’s a life half-lived. If only they could get back to Moscow. If only…


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