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Ashland New Plays Festival gets personal, political

From a couple dealing with empty-nest syndrome to a doctor faced with pollution-linked diseases in a small town, the Ashland New Plays Festival is delving into work that ranges from the deeply personal to the broadly political.

The festival's small army of volunteer readers combed through 400 scripts from around the world to select 12 finalists, which were then honed down to the four plays that will be presented in dramatic readings from Wednesday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

Tickets, $20 each or $60 for a festival pass, are available online at www.ashlandnewplays.org or at Paddington Station, 125 E. Main St., Ashland. Discussions with the playwright, cast members and audience follow each reading.

The performances kick off at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19, with playwright Stephanie Walker's "The Madres." A second reading of the play is at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21.

A Chicago native who lives in Los Angeles, Walker is also the author of the book and blog "Love in the Time of Foreclosure."

Set in Argentina in 1979, her play "The Madres" follows two women searching for a pregnant relative who has disappeared during the country's "Dirty War" between left- and right-wing forces. When the women are visited by a chaplain and then a soldier stationed at one of the military dictatorship's detention camps, they hatch a plan to see their relative one last time and save her baby.

"The 'Dirty War' was one of the ghastly times in Argentinian history," says James Pagliasotti, president of the festival's board of directors. "People were being 'disappeared' — literally seized off the streets."

Also mixing the personal and political, Michael Erickson's "Oberon Springs" takes audience members to Oberon Springs, Missouri. Readings are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22.

Newly minted doctor Jennifer Maybard, pregnant with her first child, returns to her hometown in Oberon Springs to take over her aunt's medical practice. There she finds residents, especially children, are being sickened by pollution linked to factory farming in the area. Maybard is unprepared for the hostility the community feels toward her aunt for trying to document and expose the connection.

"The play deals with the implications of chemicals and pollutants in society and how they impact a town," Pagliasotti says. "There are people who cherish the jobs and those who are concerned about the impacts."

Erickson teaches play writing at Webster University in Missouri. His works include "Alien Hand Syndrome" and Last Tree, Easter Island."

The festival takes an intimate, personal turn with "Hazardous Materials" by Beth Kander, a Chicago-based playwright and author of children's books and novels.

The play takes place in a single apartment, but seen in two different eras — the 1950s and 2015.

In 2015, new co-workers Hal and Cassie are sent by the county to investigate a Chicago apartment where an elderly Jane Doe recently died. The story unfolds in alternating scenes, with the two picking through the belongings of a stranger to determine her identity, contrasted with scenes from an earlier era. With each object or truth unearthed or ignored in each era, the apartment reveals itself as home to a world of human longing.

Readings of "Hazardous Materials" are at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22.

Mike Teele's "EdanEv" also deals with personal relationships — in this case, two couples at a crossroads.

With her daughter recently married, a wife facing empty-nest syndrome announces to her befuddled husband she wants to try living on her own. Meanwhile, another man and woman hit with loneliness and nostalgia find themselves in bed together for the first time since their college days.

They all face the question of how they are going to design and define the rest of their lives.

"EdenEv" readings are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23.

Teele lives in the city of New York and is the creator and writer of a live weekly sitcom that played in the city's comedy clubs. In addition to producing work for the stage, he has written dozens of educational films for kindergarten through high school students.

For people who want to try their hand at play writing or hone their skills, award-winning playwright EM Lewis will lead a workshop on "Who They Are and What They Say" from 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Oct. 22. The cost is $10 at the door. To reserve a space, email gray@ashlandnewplays.org.

Now in its 25th season, the Ashland New Plays Festival is continuing its mission to help playwrights refine their work and bring it to the stage, while also giving audiences the opportunity to see new work, Pagliasotti says.

After outreach efforts to broaden the demographics of playwrights submitting work, he says the selected works represent diverse writers. The festival is becoming so well-known, it received more than 570 submissions two years ago and now caps entries at the first 400 submissions, he says.

"It's not easy selling a product no one's ever heard of. It's not easy to survive when the focus is on new plays," Pagliasotti says. "It's really satisfying to receive so many submissions and to see the interest grow. So many people in the community make this a success."

Clockwise from top left, Beth Kander, Michael Erickson, Stephanie Walker and Mike Teele are the four playwrights selected to participate in the Ashland New Plays Festival. Photos courtesy of ANPF