Play Festival showcases student playwrights


Picture by Kaatje Weiland

The unexpected is the best source of inspiration. The most trivial things—a joke at 4 a.m., a dream, a peculiar Google search—can become catalysts for magic, and theatre is just that—magic. 

This year’s Claire Donaldson New Play Festival became a platform for brand-new plays written by Augustana students and produced by guest directors from the Sioux Falls and surrounding communities.

The Claire Donaldson New Play Festival brought to life the work of students coming from all branches of theatre. 

For three nights the Edith Mortenson Centre theatre was the setting for 11 plays: a reading of Chameleon Love by W. James Wood, six ten-minute plays written and performed by Augustana students and four plays entirely produced in a 24-hour period known as “Theatrical Genesis.”

The festival was created to honor the memory of ‘00 Augustana alumna Claire Donaldson. After Donaldson’s passing, her family donated money to support a festival to celebrate Donaldson’s love for playwriting and endowed a scholarship in her name.

Theatre professor Jayna Fitzsimmons, who was a guest director for the festival before becoming a faculty member, was in charge of this year’s festival along with senior Kyle Marks, the current Claire Donaldson scholar whose play Trojan was one of the six performed on Friday, Feb. 23. According to Fitzsimmons, having their plays produced helps students improve them.

“In a new play development process, it’s really important that the playwrights step back and hand their work off to someone who can then interpret it. The playwrights can see how others see their work and continue the development of their plays based on that.”

Marks is not a stranger to the festival, having presented his play Antlers as a sophomore. Antlers went on to be chosen as one of the top two plays in the region at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. Marks credited the festival for allowing him to further develop the play.

“A lot of what I saw in Antlers when it was performed for the first time at the Claire Donaldson Festival was useful in moving forward with the play,” Marks said.

Although the students participating in the festival come from all branches of theatre, Fitzsimmons believes the opportunity to experiment makes the plays unique.

“Playwriting is for everybody and each of [the students’] plays bring something different to the table,” Fitzsimmons said. “[The students] are drawing from their strengths and what they’re interested in, but, happily, they’re also moving into uncharted territory. They’re reaching out to different areas of theatre to make something exciting.”

Sophomore Emily Costello has been working in the costume department since she came to Augustana as a theatre major, but taking a playwriting class over interim encouraged her to submit a play to the festival.

Like Costello, sophomore Tristan Love got a start on his play Magic in the Bank, in Fitzsimmons’ “New Play Development” class a year ago. Love sees the festival as an unintimidating way to approach playwriting.

“I like how the festival is so relaxed,” Love said. “It’s like a nonchalant version of theatre, which means that amateur playwrights like myself get a good opportunity to get something out. A lot of people are scared to write [plays] and put them out there because they’re afraid of harsh judgement or not being successful, whereas Claire Donaldson is a fun festival where there is no pressure, which I think makes a really good environment to be creative.”

Fitzsimmons thinks the festival is important for the growth of both the artists and the community.

“When you produce new work, you’re investing in the future of theatre,” Fitzsimmons said. “Every play has to start somewhere, so this festival supports the development of new artists and new ideas.”

“[The festival] is a good opportunity for the community to experience something together,” Fitzsimmons said. “That’s what I love about theatre. Everybody is in the same room watching the same thing happen on stage—it becomes communal. It’s an opportunity to experience the creation and celebration of something new.”

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