Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

MCT's 2014-2015 Montgomery Davis Play Development Series

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

by Michael Cotey

MCT invites you to join us for this year's Montgomery Davis Play Development Series readings in October 2014 and May 2015.  Read the inside scoop below, and mark your calendars today!

There are no guarantees in playwriting. It might be easy to understand that not every play written gets a shot at a full production in front of an audience. But the even sadder truth is most new plays, even the good ones, live out their days sitting on the shelves or in the email inboxes of artistic directors across the country. Those works gather dust, buried by other similar card-carrying members of play development purgatory, forgotten and unread.

It's a bit bleak, and I admit to being dramatic (it is theatre, after all)-but bringing an audience and actors to a play, even for just a staged reading, is an opportunity for playwrights finally to answer lingering questions about their script. Those questions may be about whether or not moments work, if dialogue sounds natural coming from the mouths of others, and simply if an audience cares about the characters and their story. And in short defense of artistic directors, having formerly served in that role for Youngblood Theatre, I don't think there is an AD out there who wouldn't love to see all good plays given this shot at life beyond the shelf.

That's why I admire Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Montgomery Davis Play Development Series (MDPDS), because not only does Producing Artistic Director C. Michael Wright put his money where his mouth is by giving new plays a shot, he's aimed his focus, in my opinion, at the untapped cache of Wisconsin playwrights. Scripts chosen for the MDPDS are given a reading by local professionals in front of an audience, often followed by some lively discussion about the play. A handful of those plays have been subsequently groomed into full productions, such as Jonathan Gillard Daly's THE DALY NEWS and Lori Matthews' OCTOBER, BEFORE I WAS BORN.

This is frankly a tremendous opportunity - one of the few in Milwaukee that exists for our underserved local playwrights. So I am pleased to know that this year's MDPDS outings are by two playwrights I adore: Richard Kalinoski and Michelle Lopez-Rios.

About the Playwright: Richard Kalinoski

A staged reading of THE BOY INSIDE by Richard Kalinoski will be presented on Monday, October 13, 2014 at 7:30 pm at the Broadway Theatre Center.

richard kRichard Kalinoski whet his appetite for playwriting as a UW-Whitewater student in the late sixties. After writing a couple of plays for a student group he founded which, he muses, "were apparently quite successful," Richard pursued the graduate playwriting program at Carnegie-Mellon University. His first major break came in 1995 with a production of his play BEAST ON THE MOON in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The well-received production helped land Richard an agent, and BEAST has subsequently been produced in over 20 other countries.

BEAST also had its Milwaukee premiere in 1995 right here at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. The play was directed by Jim Tasse and provided now-frequent MCT actor Mary MacDonald Kerr (THE DETECTIVE'S WIFE) with one of her first break-out roles as Seta, the mail-order bride of Aram, an Armenian refugee. Nearly twenty years later Kerr returned to the play, directing it for In Tandem Theatre and featuring a particularly handsome young man as Aram.beast

Ok, full disclosure - that young man was me. Performing in BEAST was among my favorite experiences on stage. Richard writes characters in which actors can really lose themselves. His characters are full human beings, and their dialogue is poetic without being indulgent. Night after night Richard's words took our audiences on a tremendous journey, and doing his play filled me with a renewed purpose to do theatre.

Meeting Richard played a part in that as well. He persistently expressed his gratitude for the fact that somebody had decided to do his play. It was humbling to see his sincere thanks, despite the work having several significant successful performances around the world. It made doing the play all that more rewarding.

"I've always been a big fan of Richard's BEAST ON THE MOON," says Michael Wright, "and while I was on staff at Next Act about ten years ago, we produced his BETWEEN MEN AND CATTLE, which is a very interesting play about race relations in America. I applaud Richard's courage in tackling important issues head-on."

"Tackling" issues head-on is exactly what Richard does in his newest play THE BOY INSIDE. The play invites us into the world of Tony Bartolo, head coach of a Division III college football team, on the heels of the school's first national championship. Enter Dr. Kingston-Barrows: his college president, a distinguished academic, and devil's advocate supreme on the cost of sport injuries. Amid the frenzied preparations she asks him to stop and contemplate the violent implications of the sport of America's obsession. A series of unexpected clashes follows - where college president and seasoned coach, standing opposed to each other like evenly matched football teams at the line of scrimmage, are led to re-examine their own prejudices and proclivities.

The play was born out of Richard's conversations with UW-Oshkosh head football coach Pat Cerroni and a long awareness of rooted stereotypical assumptions some in academics hold towards sports. One common stereotype is that college football programs are pumped full of university funding. Richard states that this is simply not the case.

"Football programs at Division III schools are often short of money, staff, recruiting opportunities, time, and resources," says Richard. "If your frame of reference is Ohio State or even University of Wisconsin, you wouldn't know about the humble conditions that characterize smaller programs at less conspicuous institutions."

The long-term physical consequence of high impact sports, particularly football, is a hot button topic among the top social issues on the lips of pundits and politicians alike. But the focus of the debate tends to be on the consequences of the injuries when perhaps there is another conversation to be had that seeks to identify the underlying nature of violence in sports.

Richard thinks so, and his play is an attempt to broach that conversation.

"I don't think there has been enough discussion of or investigation into the uses of sport in society," says Richard. "Most of the rhetoric that surrounds sport is connected to teammanship and courage and school spirit and temporary hero construction. More needs to be discussed about the cultural necessity of physical adversity in the framework of games."

Richard states his goal goes beyond circling a rhetorical argument, and it pays off. THE BOY INSIDE doesn't merely take the pulse of society on the issue of sports violence. Instead, Richard provides something akin to a full physical on the subject and shows just how complex and delicate the issue can be for both sides. Coach Bartolo's viewpoint is both personal and emotional, but also driven from deeply embedded cultural norms and expectations, while Dr. Kingston-Barrows' perspective is informed by her study of peoples and society, tinged with a bias for safety of the individual.

Regardless on which side of the issue you fall, Richard's play is bound to have you asking more questions than providing answers. He doesn't tell you what to think, but he compels you to think - as any good play should.

On May 15 Richard gave a small audience a unique peek at a draft of the play in an unconventional venue: the football meeting room at UW-Oshkosh. Richard described the audience as both "stunned and shocked" at parts of the play.  The reading drew a mix of people from the worlds of both football and academics and elicited lively discussion.  MCT anticipates as fruitful a response and reception when THE BOY INSIDE comes to the Broadway Theatre Center.

About the Playwright: Michelle Lopez-Rios

A staged reading of 500 YEARS by Michelle Lopez-Rios will be presented on Monday, May 4, 2015 at 7:30 pm at the Broadway Theatre Center.

michelle lopezMichelle Lopez-Rios grew up in the small town of Spring, Texas and spent summers on the Gulf Coast immersed in family, music, great food, and storytelling.  This is where I've often pictured Michelle, all wide-eyed and watching in wonder as she discovered the power of telling stories straight from the lips of her beloved family. Michelle's pursuit of storytelling transplanted her from Texas to train as an actor in the BFA acting program at University of Southern California and across the pond for a summer studying Shakespeare at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

After years of pounding the pavement as an actor, Michelle moved back to Texas and earned her MFA at the University of Houston. There she uncovered a passion for the voice and, with some encouragement from her voice teacher, Michelle began coaching voice her second semester. When University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee launched its BFA acting program, Michelle was brought on as faculty for its voice component. This past year she was made head of the program.

Michelle has spent her career in the theatre wearing many hats as teacher, actor, director, and, most recently, playwright. I wasn't too surprised to learn that during her most weary moments as an actor one of those hats was of the non-theatre variety as a paralegal for the Harris County Attorney Child Protective Services.

As an actor myself, I can attest that a stint in a civilian job is not uncommon and usually necessary. But leave it to Michelle to pick a side job spent helping the helpless. As one of my professors at UWM, Michelle always made herself available to her students. I know her to be willing to pitch in at any given moment and come to those who need a helping hand. She's a generous theatre artist and human being who will prioritize the success of others as high as her own success.

"Michelle Lopez-Rios is an incredibly thoughtful and generous human being, as well as a gifted theatre artist," agrees Michael Wright. "When she told me she was writing a one-woman piece exploring the history of Latin women, I was immediately intrigued and interested in supporting the project."

Michelle's 500 YEARS
"It is an homage to my family, my history, and in particular the women," says Michelle, describing her new play 500 YEARS. The one-woman show featuring Michelle explores the memory of 500-year-old Esperanza as she reflects on her life. Among the characters in her play are a 16th-century Spanish court cook, the wife of a Mexican fighting at the Alamo, and an activist in Milwaukee.

Seeds for the story were planted when both sides of Michelle's family researched their genealogy. Michelle, forever the theatre artist, began wondering what stories were locked away and hidden between the names etched on her family trees. While inspiration coursed through her storytelling veins, Michelle struggled to find a way to tell the stories. Then Michelle witnessed a struggle of a different kind: her grandmother and godmother's battle against memory loss.

"It affected me deeply. I spent lots of time thinking about memory, stories, customs, and journeys. I wondered how ending up here in Wisconsin, so far from family, would affect the memories my son would have about his family. After visiting with my grandmother last year, and watching my toddler son interact with her, the character of Esperanza was born," says Michelle.

The plays' characters are all inspired by research, the phase of the playwriting process in which Michelle is currently immersed. Along with pouring over books and documentaries, Michelle went to visit the Alamo last summer and has been listening and dancing to a variety of music. Now that her school duties at UWM have wrapped up, she has a daily plan of writing and dancing.

"I will be studying African dance and Aztec dance. Music and movement have been vital to the process. They get the creative juices flowing," explains Michelle. "The final piece will incorporate all of that."

And while the play is still taking shape, that doesn't bother Michael Wright at all. In fact, he planned on it.

"This is the first time we've committed to a script before it had even been written, but the circumstances felt right," he says assuredly. "I consider Michelle a member of the MCT family, and I wanted to provide her with a safe "home" environment in which to continue building this new work."

THE BOY INSIDE by Richard Kalinoski on Monday, October 13, 2014 and 500 YEARS by Michelle Lopez-Rios on Monday, May 4, 2015 will  be performed in the Broadway Theatre Center's Skylight Bar & Bistro (2nd floor), 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets for the staged readings are Pay-What-You-Can. Seating is first-come, first-served.

michael coteyMichael Cotey is a director and actor. Previous credits with MCT include THINGS BEING WHAT THEY ARE and Young Playwrights Festival. He is currently earning his MFA in Directing at Northwestern University.

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