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K-State provides various opportunities for aspiring playwrights

By Danya Morris

 

Kansas State University may be miles from Broadway or the Hollywood hills, but student playwrights at K-State are given opportunities to see their original plays come to life just the same.

Charles Mehler, a graduate student in speech from Chicago, debuted a staged reading of his original musical, "Wealth, and How Not to Avoid It," in January 2004 at the Manhattan Arts Center. Writing for the musical stage had been Mehler's dream since he was a seventh grader and saw "My Fair Lady" for the first time. Since then, he has known it was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"I've dreamed of being the first person since Alan Jay Lerner and 'My Fair Lady' to successfully adapt George Bernard Shaw to the musical stage," Mehler said.

After arriving on the K-State campus in 2002 he began working on "Wealth, and How Not to Avoid It" as an independent study, eventually making it part of his master's degree project. His original work is a musical adaptation of Shaw's "Major Barbara." It is the comedic story of Andrew Undershaft and how he deals with his estranged family.

For the performance, Mehler cast K-State students who read and sang from their scripts with the accompaniment of a guitar.

Mehler is not the only K-State student with playwrighting skill, and professors at K-State do their best to nurture the abilities of aspiring playwrights. Charlotte MacFarland, associate professor in the speech communication, theater and dance department, has personal experience as a playwright and director that she lends to her students.

"It's very rare to get a play out and it's especially hard not being in Chicago or New York," she said. "You have to write with faith."

MacFarland, however, has overcome the odds and seen many of her original works performed live. She wrote "A Gathering of Fools" that debuted at Michigan State University in 1993 and continues to run today.

"I'm drawn to telling stories," she said. "There's a moment where you think you know the truth about a character, then something unexpectedly happens and the bottom drops out. It touches the human heart."

For novice playwrights, there are a plethora of opportunities at K-State, MacFarland said. Playwright's Stage presents staged readings of students' one-act and full-length plays in progress a few Sunday afternoons each year.

The Purple Masque Theatre presents selected fully mounted plays by K-State students as well. Purple Masque is completely operated by students who perform, design and direct productions under the supervision of K-State theater faculty. Plays staged at the Purple Masque are known to be edgier than most main stage productions and are set in a more intimate space.

Another outlet for K-State student playwrights is the Lunch Bag Theatre, consisting of one-act plays performed over the lunch hour by students in the advanced acting class. These performances are always open to the public.

To prepare students for these venues, K-State offers courses to develop their abilities. Students start with a course in beginning playwrighting, working their way up to advanced playwrighting. The courses may be taken several times, with students working on new pieces each time they enroll.

And their work has paid off -- recently, former student Nate Jackson's original play "Mancherios" was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. As for Mehler, he is still taking steps to get "Wealth, and How Not to Avoid It" out to the world. He plans to present video cuttings from its recent reading at the International Shaw Festival in Sarasota, Fla.

"I hope to spark an interest in the heart of some representative of a college theater department, where I hope a fully-realized staging of 'Wealth, and How Not to Avoid It' could occur," he said.

Spring 2004