The Rep's Ignite! New Play Festival Launches Third Season Amid Its Biggest Success

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

“It’s surpassing my expectations,” says Rep Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon regarding the Ignite! New Play Festival, which kicks off its third season with the live readings of three newly commissioned plays March 19, 23 and 29 at the Sally S. Levy Opera Center directly behind the Loretto Hilton. “It was always my hope that we would be doing exactly what we are doing; commissioning plays, taking them through a development process, and then premiering them here so that they can be sent out to the rest of the country—the rest of the world.”

The Ignite! New Play Festival takes place on March 19, 23, and 29.

The Ignite! New Play Festival takes place on March 19, 23, and 29.

It’s easy to understand why Gordon feels his expectations have been surpassed. With the mission to “commission, develop and produce new plays to premiere at The Rep,” the program has its first honors graduate with “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” by Rebecca Gilman making its world premiere in the Rep’s studio theater Friday, March 14-30. The play was commissioned and developed through the Ignite! Festival.

A program such as Ignite!—and there aren’t many of them—helps bring new plays to fruition in a world where opportunities for new plays are very limited. “There are so many playwrights, there are so many plays,” says Gordon, who points out that of the handful of producing organizations doing what the Rep is doing, very few do it as comprehensively as the Rep does, from commission through development to a full-fledged, world class production.

Some theaters support development but not production, while some support production of new plays but not development. And very few commission new plays, without which it’s difficult for playwrights to justify the time it takes to write a play, since there’s no guarantee of a financial return. That makes what the Rep does even more rare. “It immediately places Rep in a much higher stature in the play development community than most theaters that are just starting to do this,” Gordon says.

As for how the playwrights are chosen, Gordon chooses people whose work he admires and who he knows will write a play that will speak to the Rep’s audience. He points to Gilman, author of “Soups, Stews and Casseroles,” as a perfect example. “With Rebecca I knew that I would get a play that would be provocative, thoughtful and very human,” Gordon says. “And that our audience would relate to in a very visceral way.”

This year’s lineup is very eclectic, featuring three very different projects by writers in three very different styles. “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Evolution,” by Stephen Massicotte on Wednesday, March 19, 7:30pm, tells the story of a high school biology teacher who encourages her students to ask questions about the world around them, but begins to question her own faith when one student begins putting the tough questions to her.

“Every Reason to Hope and Believe,” by Laura Eason and directed by Gordon, on Sunday, March 23 at 3pm, tells the story of a St. Louis mixed-race couple—Nathan, a celebrated African-American artist, and Emma, a St. Louis fundraiser, who reunite professionally to discuss creating a statue of Dred Scott to be erected in front of the Old Courthouse. Their conversation turns private in this “moving” story of privilege, passion and entitlement.

“Georama-A Mostly True Story of the Forgotten John Banvard,” a musical with book by West Hyler and Matt Schatz and music and Lyrics by Matt Schatz, with additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick will be read and sung Saturday, March 29, at 3pm. The mid-1800s story concerns American artist Banvard’s creation of the first georama which propelled him from rags to riches, and into a world of new stresses and competition.

One thing contributing to the success of Ignite! is the interest audiences have shown for the festival. Performances are highly attended, and Gordon says he’s gratified St. Louis has taken to the festival as quickly and enthusiastically as they have. “It’s often the first time the author has heard the play out loud in front of an audience,” Gordon says. “So it allows the audience what I like to call a backstage tour of the creative process. It gives people ownership of the material that the Rep actually produces.”

Ticket prices are $10 for individual readings or $25 for all three. To purchase tickets visit The Rep Box Office, charge by phone by calling (314) 968-4925, or visit The Rep’s Online Box Office.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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