Student playwrights pen new material through New Voices

Meg Schenk and Connor French

One play is drawn from a woman’s perspective, the other takes a sentimental journey through the male lens. Both are snapshots in time — of life and friendships — written by two aspiring student playwrights through the UO Department of Theatre Arts New Voices program.

Since 1994, the New Voices program, which became part of the UO Theatre’s mainstage season in 2017, has given students opportunities to practice their knowledge of play development, from idea to stage. Performances of the two plays will begin April 19.

“The New Voices program is meant to help playwrights who are going through a developmental play process, a lot of the time for the first time,” said director and Department of Theatre Arts instructor Tricia Rodley. “People who aren’t in theater don’t always realize that the play doesn’t always come out fully fledged. It’s a process of readings and working with actors, figuring out rhythms and language and what fits, and this gives them that experience.”

Chosen from more than 20 submissions, this year’s productions include “Just a Shack in the Woods” by Connor French, which offers up a snapshot of the friendship between two sixth grade boys, who, while independently seeking a quiet place to be alone, unexpectedly meet at the same abandoned shack in the woods.

“I would describe it as a delicious blend of comedy and drama; there are highs and lows,” Rodley said. A senior majoring in physics and theater, French is also a cast member in the Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s current production of “Damascus.”

Meg Schenk’s “Smudge” takes a peek into the private lives of four young women as they struggle to navigate their final year of college and the uncertainties of what comes next in their shared communal living space. Schenk, who graduated from the UO last year with a bachelor’s in English and minors in both theater arts and anthropology, is now interning at several theaters in Chicago.

Beyond the New Voices program, their work has been submitted for inclusion in various festivals and other venues as well as entered in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s regional and national program for consideration in play award categories. The national awards will be presented at the festival in Washington, D.C. April 15-20.

Despite the challenges of directing two plays simultaneously, Rodley said working with the students has been a gratifying experience.

“I have loved seeing Meg and Connor move through the process together,” she said. “It’s exciting to see how they’ve changed.”

Likewise, as exciting as it is for the students to see their hard work come to fruition on stage, it’s also a treat for the audience to see new material presented with a fresh perspective, something that has never been seen before.

“Sometimes people hear ‘student-written plays’ and they think, ‘meh,’” Rodley said. “But these are really sophisticated, nuanced, funny, thoughtful plays.”

New Voices opens April 19 for seven shows in the intimate black box Hope Theatre within the Miller Theatre Complex. Each play, which runs approximately 40 minutes, will be presented back to back with a brief intermission, and a post-play discussion with the playwrights will follow the Saturday, April 20, show.

By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications