Playwrights Local Highlights Work of Cleveland Native Mac Wellman at Homecoming Festival

Brian Pedaci in Mac Wellman’s “Bitter Bierce.” Photo by Grace McConnell.

Thu 3/23-Sat 3/25

Playwrights Local for the last two years has focused on producing new plays by local writers. However, part of the company’s mission is also to celebrate influential Northeast Ohio playwrights.

This leads us to the Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival, which takes place 3/23-25 at Cleveland State University’s Drinko Hall, as well as convergence-continuum’s the Liminus. The latter performance of Harm’s Way is the only show that carries an admission.

Partnering with Playwrights Local is Cleveland State University Department of English, the NEOMFA Creative Writing Program and the Michael Schwartz Library, with performances by Playwrights Local, Theater Ninjas, convergence-continuum, CSU Department of Theatre & Dance, Baldwin Wallace University Department of Theatre and Dance and The Manhattan Project — Cleveland Lab.

CoolCleveland talked to Playwrights Local artistic director David Todd about the first festival of any kind in commission with Wellman, who is currently head of the master of fine arts program at Brooklyn College in New York City.

Tell us why Playwrights Local is presenting the Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival?

In the playwriting world, Mac Wellman is really high up in terms of esteem and importance. I think he’s considered one of the most important and influential playwrights — and also teacher and mentor in the playwriting world — in the last 40 years. He’s from Cleveland, and he’s one of the most literary figures from Cleveland from this time period. He has written about Cleveland in his work. There’s sort of a sensibility about Cleveland that I don’t think defines every facet of his work, but I think it’s kind of important too. So we want to draw attention to his body of work in his hometown. We feel like this is long overdue.

How does the festival fit into the company’s mission?

Generally, we’re producing new plays by local playwrights and now our goal is to sort of infuse opportunities for playwrights in the Cleveland area. Part of that is, I think, just drawing attention to great playwrights from the Cleveland area and draw attention to the legacy of playwriting in Cleveland. So honoring one of the most significant playwrights to come from here is a good part of that mission in a more global kind of sense.

What will audiences see at the Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival?

We’re just trying to have a range of work from him across different periods of his activity. Bitter Bierce is one of the more naturalistic pieces, even though he’s known for being pretty experimental. So it’s a more accessible piece about the American satirist and writer Ambrose Bierce. It’s a really great piece of writing. There’s The Sandalwood Box, which is a more experimental. There are also staged readings of plays that are pretty significant to his body of work such as Sincerity Forever. There’s a staged reading of his book Cleveland, sort of a dark family comedy about growing up here. So it’s getting a range of his works from different periods of his career.

Tell us why you’re a fan of Wellman.

Mac Wellman is really one of the most important, great thinkers of just a traditional dramatic model. He’s someone who has experimented not just with narrative, but conventional ideas about character. And that doesn’t mean the plays are terribly inaccessible or weird, but he’s a person who really tried to get outside of the normal rules of drama. One of the things that has made him significant is that over the 20th century, as film and TV came along and playwriting became more theatrical, as an alternative to those other storytelling forms, Mac Wellman was one of the people opening up new doors as a way to get out of this conventional sort of what they call kitchen-sink realism. It kind of crosses over to the teaching that he’s done, which has also been pretty significant. As an example, there’s the bad play exercise — write the worst play you can imagine that breaks all of the rules of what you consider to be good playwriting. Actually, some of the people who did that exercise had that play produced and turned into major productions.

What was Wellman’s reaction to learning a festival was being dedicated in his name?

He was happy, and pleased. I know he’s excited about coming home. I remember telling him that this is where we go from just talking about it to it becoming real. I can’t speak for him, but I think whenever you’re recognized in your hometown, it’s always kind of nice.

Regarding Playwrights Local, how has the company evolved over the last two years?

It’s been going pretty well. We did Objectively/Reasonable, which received a lot of attention. We just revived it for another run that just closed. It got us coverage on NPR and American Theatre (magazine). And then we’ve done two other productions of local plays. All of them have been successful for us on our own terms. Then at the same time, we’ve done these playwright programs. In April, we’re going to develop three plays with a director, dramaturge and actor over the period of months. It’s a good incubator process for the playwrights to get their work ready. We have other things like that going on. So, we’re evolving.

Looking ahead for Playwrights Local, does the company plan on staging a second Mac Wellman Festival next year or perhaps highlighting another Northeast Ohio playwright?

It would be the latter. We’d like to do something of this nature with other people. Our primarily goal is to do productions of original plays. We want to fill that void in Cleveland to make sure that playwrights here are getting their work out there. We’d like to do the festival again to make a little bit more awareness of the tradition of playwrights from here who are important. That actually helps playwrights here, puts the city a little bit more on the map and the playwriting world. It raises the profile a little bit.

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