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The next stage
The Rep's New Play Festival develops masterpieces-in-progress

Already known for its commitment to fostering fresh regional work, the Madison Repertory Theatre will accentuate local connections during this year's New Play Festival. The annual event, running Nov. 4"12 at Overture Center's Playhouse, features four evolving works with Wisconsin connections.

"It just naturally happened," says artistic director Richard Corley of 2006's in-state theme. "We had a commission to do a play about Vince Lombardi [...The Only Thing], and Dave Hudson got in touch about a new version of Main-Travelled Roads. And with two slots already filled, we thought why not go all the way and make it a Wisconsin project."

Eric Simonson's ...The Only Thing kicks off the event - no pun intended - on Nov. 4 (7 p.m.), and plays again on the 11th (7 p.m.). Corley, who developed the show's initial concept, will direct. "It began with Dave Maraniss' book [When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi], and my desire to create a play that had the same richness and complexity," says Corley.

Simonson, a football-loving Green Bay native who won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary Short, was the perfect match for the subject. "He had wanted to write a play about Vince Lombardi for years," says Corley. "It was a total coincidence that he wrote the play in the same year he won the Academy Award. But it's a nice coincidence."

Also featured on Nov. 4 is a reading of The Dig by Milwaukee playwright Marie Kohler (2 p.m.). Kohler's play connects archeology with the search for personal answers, incorporating themes of mental illness, memory and family relationships. Corley notes the process of evolution that is visible within the festival's program, comparing Simonson's work, which is 90% finished, to Kohler's, which he estimates is halfway to completion.

"It's intriguing to look at these pieces in different stages," he says. "With a finished production, the goal is to make every moment as vivid as possible. The goal of the festival is that the playwrights will leave having answered as many questions as possible. We'll come out with everybody being able to move on to the next stage."

Patrick Sims' 10 Perfect is next on the program, with a reading on Nov. 11 (2 p.m.). Sims' work is loosely based on the life of Milwaukee resident James Cameron, founder of America's Black Holocaust Museum and survivor of an attempted lynching. The one-man play, to be performed by Sims himself, provides perspective on Cameron's experiences by employing the voices of several characters.

"It's a wonderful thing when actors create work for themselves," says Corley. "They often turn out to be marvelous writers."

Main-Travelled Roads, closing the festival on Nov. 12 (2 p.m.), is another musical collaboration from Muskie Love creators Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. Based on the book by Pulitzer-winning Wisconsin author Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads depicts the inhabitants of rural Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Corley, who directed an earlier workshop of the show, has watched it grow and gain strength; he predicts that it will soon be playing as a full-scale production with Wisconsin companies.

Each play will be followed by a discussion among audience members, playwrights and directors. Attendees are also invited to write down their comments on the plays.

"The audience really is important to the festival," says Corley. "I can't tell you how hard the playwrights listen to them. And because the plays are works-in-progress, the writer and director can go back in and say, ‘The audience said to try this - let's do it.' These plays are clay on the potter's wheel."

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