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The Play Is the Thing : CalArts' five-day theater festival showcases 17 original works by students and alumni whose specialties are anything but writing.


An aspiring stage actress since childhood, Amy Keating, 23, didn't give up when CalArts faculty members placed her on academic probation last spring because her voice was too nasal.

Instead, Keating hired a private voice teacher and spent the summer and fall working to prove them wrong.

This May is a different story. Reinstated and recharged, she remains devoted to acting but has also refined another passion--playwriting--and is the only student at next week's fifth annual CalArts New Plays Festival with two entries.

"They didn't think I was as strong as I was," said Keating, who grew up in Woodland Hills and attended Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills. "They thought I'd bow out."

Besides Keating's plays, the festival features 15 other original works by CalArts students and alumni who normally are engaged in non-writing disciplines, ranging from set design to animation. The event gives them an opportunity to experiment with a new art form and discover how the work of a playwright affects their chosen specialties.

The five-day festival, produced by the theater school, runs from Wednesday through May 9, and will showcase about six one-act plays each day on campus stages.

"This helps them see that the making of a play is a co-creative process," said Martha Ferrara, interim dean of the theater school. "Years ago, plays came from the single vision of the playwright, and other people fit that vision. Now, everyone develops one together, and these people can go back to their fields and see how what they are doing is as much playwriting as the person who is writing."

Ferrara said the theater school offers only one course in playwriting but hopes to eventually put together an official program in dramatic writing.

"We are planting the seeds," Ferrara said. "My goal is three to five years. We need a full complement of courses and visiting scholars."

From an original 35 plays submitted in February to an 11-member student selection committee, 17 were selected for this year's festival. The plays, ranging from 15 to 90 minutes, were chosen for their quality and variety. Each production will be presented twice over the five-day period.

"We wanted a little of everything," said Pete Benson, a selection committee member. "We got comedy, drama, women's plays, men's plays, experimental theater and straight realism."

And then there is the work by Steve Mitchell. He doesn't even know what to call it.

He wrote "Maxwell House" in one sitting, from midnight to 4 a.m., just hours before the deadline. He had a 102-degree temperature, and drank pots of coffee. He said he was almost hallucinating. One look at the final product and he might not be kidding. The two-character play, only about 15 minutes long, is a romantic tale of a Byzantine vampire who survives on coffee instead of blood. "I don't know if it has a point," said Mitchell, 27, "but I do know it has a beginning, middle and end."

Hours after the play was completed, when his fever had broken and the caffeine had worn off, Mitchell reassessed his early-morning creation. "I almost didn't turn it in," he said. "I thought, 'What is this?' I was shocked it was accepted."

Mitchell's focus at CalArts has been set design, but after being immersed in his field for nine years since his undergraduate days at the University of South Florida, burnout had set in. "I was ready to do something else," Mitchell said.

At first, Mitchell, who had never written a play, felt he was "overstepping my bounds," but, as the process wore on, he discovered a new respect for an art he had taken for granted.

"I designed sets and didn't think much of scripts," he said, "but when you sit down and do it, it's hard."

Writing has come easier for Mark Tapio Kines, who has a play in the festival for the second consecutive year. This time, it's "Boxing Day," the story of a woman about to commit suicide who receives a bomb in the mail from her husband.

Kines graduated last year from the animation school at CalArts. He now helps create the graphics for a Santa Monica company that makes video games. Despite his emphasis on animation, Kines envisions plenty of writing in his future.

"Doing this teaches you so much about structure instead of just seeing the little thing you're concentrating on," he said.

The festival, which is funded by private donations and grants, is free to the public.

Kines, 23, said this has given him a lot of freedom. Because students and alumni don't have to raise the money needed to produce their work, "you feel like you can take chances," he said. "It's a great way for amateurs to try stuff out."

Keating is certainly proving that theory. One of her two plays, "While Waiting for Athena," is about a group of women in search of themselves and each other while waiting for the mythical goddess Athena on Mt. Olympus. She describes the play as a female version of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," in which two men consider suicide while waiting for the never-arriving Godot.

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