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Rockford Festival A Showcase For New Plays, New Playwrights

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Guy Stephens
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(left to right) Linda Zuba, Mika Doyle and Mike Werckle inside The West Side Show Room's new "black box" theater.

The fifth annual Rockford New Play Festival takes place Friday and Saturday at The West Side Show Room. This year’s edition features short works by established and aspiring playwrights on the theme “Over…The Edge.” 

Artistic Director Mike Werckle recently showed off The West Side Show Room’s nearly completed new home. A cabaret area and 30-by-30 foot black box theater are housed in a strip mall some ways north of Rockford’s downtown. Werckle saidthe space will allow the company to fulfill its main mission: to confront what he calls a diversity crisis in theater and the performing arts.  

“We don’t have a lot of people of color, people with disabilities, participating in -- and seeing -- theater in our area," he said. "So we want to do everything possible to change that.”

Whether, Werckle said, it be through its casting policies, its play choices, or other means. 

An early collaboration with the Rockford Area Arts Council was intended to showcase new plays by area high schoolers. Then, Werckle said, someone shared a poster for the event with a national playwriting blog. Hundreds of entries poured in, not from teens, but from professional writers.

“So we decided, ‘Well, the universe is telling us to start a new play festival,’ he said. So we read these hundreds of plays and chose six. And the rest is history.”

Recent festivals have had a theme -- on women’s issues, or social divisions, for instance. Werckle said this year’s, “Over…The Edge,” was inspired by events at the southern border of the United States. 

“And we asked playwrights to write a play that explores the idea of these artificial boundaries that we create in our world," he said, "and also the people who risk everything to cross over them.”

Werckle said some of the entries hew closely to the theme’s original inspiration. Some take a much broader view of the concept.

One of those is “Promposal” by Mika Doyle. The Rockford-based creative writer and poet said she was very interested in this year’s theme but had never written a play before. She said a workshop put on by The West Side Show Room gave her the confidence to try.

Doyle chose to look at the theme metaphorically. She said it was important to her personally to show that not all boundaries mark a land or territory.

“Barriers within relationships and with families," she said, "and how these conflicts could really damage those relationships and really disrupt their life.”

Doyle said there’s a sweet twist at the end that she doesn’t want to reveal. She wants the audience’s takeaway to be positive.

“I am a little bit anxious about how people are going to receive my play," she said. "But I do hope that there is going to be this message of love and acceptance once they get to the end.” 

Linda Zuba did take the theme literally with her entry, “Rainbow Warriors.” The lawyer and human rights activist also had never written a play before. But the theme spoke directly to her own recent experience working with those seeking asylum in the United States.

“I just felt called to do it," she said. "Between ‘Over…The Edge’ -- and boundaries -- and it’s the work I was doing. And I had promised asylum seekers that I would tell their story.”

She said it was importantthat people understand what asylum seekers at the border have gone through.

“It just was gnawing at me," she said, "and I was feeling guilty if I didn’t at least try. I had to open up, you know, these little closed doors I have in my mind, that are sometimes really painful to reopen. But every time I put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Serious, heartwarming, or just plain quirky, Werckle said the plays reflect that idea of diversity the West Side Show Room was founded on.  The festival’s reception, he said, shows there is a community of writers out there eager to create new, diverse work.  And an audience eager to hear it.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."