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NewFest Plays Look at Dark Side of Technology, Relationships

This year’s NewFest, Emerson Stage’s annual festival of new works, will take audiences down two dark, but very different paths—one, a comedy about fratricide, the other, an exploration of the pervasiveness of technology in our lives.

For two weeks each spring, Emerson Stage presents new work written by students, with the centerpiece being the winner of the Rod Parker ’51 Playwriting Award. This year’s winner, Living Will, by Renée Lafond, will run from Thursday, March 16, to Sunday, March 19, in the Greene Theater.

For the past two years, NewFest has also brought in a professional playwright to workshop a brand new play. This year, Click, by award-winning Philadelphia playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, will be performed Thursday, March 30, to Sunday, April 2, in the Greene.

Joe Antoun, senior affiliated Performing Arts faculty and NewFest artistic director, is on the committee that selects the Rod Parker winner, as well as the selection of student shorts that will be performed later this month as part of the festival.

“We had a pretty strong field this year, so it was a little tougher choice; but Living Will, I think, has a really fun sense of storytelling to it,” Antoun said. “It gives the same story from different perspectives, and it has a great theatricality to it that gives a lot of opportunity for students in our department who are designing and are acting in it.”

Living Will is about a couple who is plotting the murder of the man’s brother while the woman is having an affair with him in order to get his inheritance, Antoun said, adding, “it is very funny.”

Lafond said she tends to write “a bit on the darker side,” but with Living Will, she was having so much fun with it, she wanted to see how much she could get away with.

Originally, she conceived of the play as a long story or novel, said Lafond, a graduate student in Theatre Education. But a couple of years ago, she had to write something for a one-act play performance and decided to convert the story into a short play. Then, she decided to take it further.

“I was like, I really like this idea, and I really like where it’s going, so why don’t I develop it?” Lafond said.

Antoun said the great thing about producing a student work is that it drives home to young playwrights a deeper perspective and a “respect for the theater,” both by having actors take their words so seriously and by hearing suggestions for making their work better.

“I remind them that this is a production, not the production,” he said.

When she learned Living Will was selected as the Rod Parker winner and would be fully produced for NewFest, Lafond said she “didn’t have any words, I was way too excited about it.”

She commutes to Emerson from Rhode Island, so hasn’t been able to do more than peek her head in to rehearsals, but she said she’s excited to see the play “fresh.”

Lafond said she never gave a lot of consideration to becoming a playwright, but maybe she will now.

“I’m just really excited for this opportunity and I’m wondering where this goes,” she said.

Goldfinger’s work has been performed around the world and has been recognized by the Barrymore Awards, the Brown Martin Award, the Leah Ryan Prize, the McNally Awards, Philadelphia Critics Awards, and The Kilroys.

Her latest play, Click, follows college students involved in a fraternity gang rape that goes viral. It explores how the event, and the evolving technology that keeps it alive, fractures and reshapes their lives over a 15-year period.

The playwright said she was inspired to write the play after reading about several actual college gang rapes that went viral online. She said in an online interview that she didn’t want to add to the victims’ burden by focusing on any one actual rape, but wanted to explore what the incidents said about our “deepening intimacy” with technology.

“It was fertile dramatic ground and would speak to the choices we are going to make about technology and our private lives in the future,” Goldfinger said.

She brought the play, which had been awarded a special commendation by the Philadelphia Theatre Company as part of the Terrence McNally Awards, to Emerson Stage to be made ready for the stage.

The second half of the play has completely changed twice, she said, and the process has helped her figure out what in the piece works and what doesn’t. Unlike literature and poetry, which only need to work on the page, plays need to work in multiple dimensions, she said.

“Especially in a play with so many sensitive issues, you have to make sure that what you mean to say comes across well in both arenas (page and stage) or you risk having your collaborators and/or audiences misconstrue your piece,” she said.

Originally called Fresh, after one of the characters, the play became more of an ensemble piece through the revision process, so Goldfinger changed the name to Click, because what brings all the characters together is “a single computer click” that changes lives.

Goldfinger called the workshop an “invaluable experience.”

“Emerson has struck the perfect balance between student and professional artists,” she said. “Everyone is learning a lot from each other; the students are picking up important skills, learning how to work on a new play, and the professionals have been inspired and recharged by the students’ enthusiasm.”

NewFest also includes a dramatic reading of Grimm Tales by Marissa Tandon '16 on Thursday, March 23, in the Semel Theater. And on Saturday, March 25, three short works will be presented: A Lady of Distinction and Good Taste by Pablo Milla '17, directed by Lindsey Hopper '19; What’s in a Name by Henry Aceves '20, directed by Mimi Warnick '18; and ID by Owen Elphick '20, directed by Nick Chieffo '18.

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