University of Kentucky Theater Department Chair Nancy Jones introduces retired theater professor James W. Rodgers and playwright Andrew Shafer before the world premier performance of Shafer's Weak/Side/Help, which won the Rodgers Playwriting Competition. Copyrighted LexGo photo by Rich Copley.
Before the world premier of his new play, Weak/Side/Help, playwright Andrew Shafer sat down with University of Kentucky Theater Department Chair Nancy Jones to discuss his show, which won the second James W. Rodgers Playwriting Competition. In the chat, before a group of invited guests at UK's Briggs Theatre, Shafer's comments concentrated on his desire to be a new voice in the theater world.
"I want to completely revolutionize theater," Shafer said. "That may sound arrogant, but if you are not there to totally push the form, I don't see why you are there."
His play, which continues Thursday (April 17) through Sunday (April 20) at UK's Guignol Theatre,certainly brings some topics to the table that don't get discussed a lot in the theater: America's obsession with sports and issues in the sporting world such as performance enhancing drugs and racism.
Shafer said he actually amplified the latter topic in the script after seeing the performance of UK football player Jeremy Jarmon in rehearsals.
"Jeremy's an extraordinary talent," Shafer said. "Originally, it
was, let's throw another piece in the mix," but fleshing the race issue out also
allowed the playwright to give Jarmon more to do. Shafer said there was
a lot of rewriting during the few weeks he was in Lexington for
rehearsals, and he learned a lot working with director Richard St.
Peter, artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington.
"I'm not directing this, and I wanted the director to have his own vision for it," Shafer said.
St. Peter said he told Shafer he had written a screenplay, with a lot of scene changes, which is not surprising given Shafer's initial inspiration to write: growing up in Los Angeles and seeing Pulp Fiction when he was in the fourth grade.
But Shafer reinforced his desire to write for the stage at Thursday's chat.
"Los Angeles has no voice in theater," Shafer said. "I want to give it one."
He also said he wanted younger voices and language to be heard: "If you're going to have new voices in theater, it can't be just a Noel Coward rip off."
Shafer is, of course, a developing voice. This is one of his first produced plays, and it was successful in being a fresh and compelling story to the stage. It's biggest weakness was an over-reliance on monologues, particularly a string at the beginning that kept the play from launching quickly. St. Peter's staging also diffused a few of the confrontations near the end, which were portrayed with the actors facing the audience, instead of facing each other. One of the show's most visceral moments, when rival quarterbacks played by Jarmon and Alex Koehl faced off, hinted at what the show needed in greater doses.
Aside from Jarmon, most of the cast were freshman and sophomores, stepping on the Guignol stage for the first time. In the leading role of Jack, Alex Maddox seemed a little nervous at the beginning of the opening night performance, but settled in to a really likable, empathetic performance somewhat reminiscent of a young John Cusack.
The biggest kudo of evening has to go to UK Theatre for reinforcing Kentucky's status, thanks to the Humana Festival of New American Plays and new efforts such as Owensboro's International Mystery Writer's Festival, as a state where new plays can take root and grow.