To several of the playwrights, producers and audience members of the New Works Festival, the return to live in-person theater felt like a return to humanity itself.
“Without art, I think that oftentimes we are bereft of being able to see ourselves clearly as a culture and society. It is art which helps illuminate our humanness,” said Michelle Bellaver, the festival’s producer.
Actors displayed a wide array of human experiences to about 120 spectators Friday and Saturday night at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville. The event debuted five half-hour plays all written by Florida playwrights, three of whom are from Gainesville. The five were selected by the festival’s production team from a pool of 41 submissions.
The featured plays were “Changeling” by Monica Cross, “Terrence” by Terrence Jackson and Jane Edwards, “Ghost of Romeo” by Bobby McAfee, “Buckets of Rain” by Douglas Gearhart and “Yes No Maybe Ommm” by Ken Pedersen.
Through the art of theater, the playwrights brought stories to life including a young boy falling victim to an unfair system, a tribe of people who can’t seem to stop arguing, struggling to accept a reality different from expectations and a couple weathering the emotional complexities of a decades-long marriage.
McAfee, whose show was performed third in the lineup, described the idea for “Ghost of Romeo” coming to him in a dream. It was a comedic but dark exploration of what may have happened immediately following the events of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Theater has always been a healthy reflection of society, sometimes telling stories that are comforting, and other times challenging us to think outside of our bubbles of thought or opinion,” McAfee said. “You can’t have a cultural landscape without the bravery to support the arts that define that landscape.”
After the performances, the five playwrights sat onstage for a ten-minute Q&A, during which audience members talked about ideas that struck a chord with them, parts they were confused by, characters they related to and other comments about the plays.
“That sort of interaction, that I could just know that maybe somebody sat there in the dark and sat still for it, and it meant something to them,” Gearhart said. “I guess that’s where the magic is.”
The playwrights, directors, actors and producers involved in the festival met for the first time on Feb. 13, and practiced for 12 hours every day in preparation for the event. Three of the actors held a role in multiple plays — a time-consuming yet rewarding commitment.
“Having the opportunity to be present in the rehearsal room and be a part of that workshopping environment is really a very special opportunity for a playwright, and I’ve really enjoyed this time that we’ve had,” Cross said.
The New Works Festival was founded by Bellaver and Stephanie Lynge in 2019 to celebrate and support Floridian artists in theater. Bellaver’s experiences as an actor and playwright inspired her to give others in the industry an opportunity to showcase their talents.
“To have Florida playwrights, Florida actors, Florida directors coming here, all coming together from the community to put on these five short plays as stage readings is such a special experience,” she said.
Last year’s New Works Festival took place over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year marked the festival’s return from the digital stage.
Greg Jones, a 71-year-old retired Santa Fe College theater professor, watched the plays Saturday. The pandemic lockdowns took away our ability to act human, he said.
“In this time where we haven’t been able to be human, it brings us back together to share our humanity, and that’s why it’s important to me. It’s medicine,” he said. “The value of sitting with your fellow community members in a place with a common purpose of hearing that story and letting it wash over you, that brings the community together, and I just think it’s so valuable.”
Ben Crosbie is a contributing writer.