Playwrighting pearls

I chatted recently with Charles L. Metten, series director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project taking place this month in Cedar City, who told me he spent a lot of time watching films as a junior high and high school student before being drafted into the army and serving in Japan during WWII.

“I was brought up by the movies,” says Metten. Good to know considering my daughters both spend a lot of time doing the movie thing. Jennifer is especially smitten with classic black and white films, including those set during WWII. Lizabeth is the family expert on contemporary film, and spends a lot of her NYC days with a fellow film buff named Kate.

As we talked, I enjoyed Metten’s tales of early Radio City Music Hall days, landing his first professional job in “The Drunkard,” performing the role of “Julius Caesar” at the festival and teaching film studies for 17 years at Brigham Young University. I learned that he’s the father of five children and seven grandchildren — with a tenth great-grandchild on the way.

Jinger Axelson (left) as Scout, Monica Bell as Jean Louise Finch, Bailey W. Duncan as Dill and Nicholas P. Denhalter as Jem in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Photo: Karl Hugh)

Metten was happy to tick off a list of some of his favorite films, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “You Can’t Take It With You” — and also spoke of the profound influence “Our Town” has had on his life. “We really haven’t touched this level of playwriting in this age,” reflects Metten.

A letter from Arthur Miller, framed in a shadow box along with a Playbill from “Death of a Salesman,” hangs over the desk where Metten manages the New American Playwright Project. A large black and white picture of Bette Davis hangs on the opposite wall over a small table piled high with scripts submitted by playwrights hoping their work will be selected for the project.

Staged readings of this year’s plays — Kurt Proctor’s “Turquoise Wind” (Aug. 16, 17, 30), Daniel Hintzsche’s “Play Desdimona” (Aug. 23, 24, 31) and Frankie Little Hardin’s “The Greater Love” (its last performance is Aug. 29) include post-reading discussions between playwright, actors and audience members. Tickets are just $10/reading.

The Utah Skakespeare Festival notes that “plays in this series are written for contemporary adult audiences and may occasionally contain themes and language not appropriate for children and that some may find offensive.” Families eager to enjoy festival time together have options that include “Scapin,” “Les Miserables” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 production of “Les Miserables” (Photo: Karl Hugh)

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is currently considering plays for the 2013 New American Playwrights Project, and has a special interest in “material that explores characters and ideas that focus on our American Western experience, spirit, and heritage.” They’ll also review scripts that “focus on ‘classic’ characters, subjects, and themes such as Shakespeare and other figures of historical, literary or artistic significance.”

I asked Metten as we chatted to offer tips for teens who have an interest in writing for theater. “Be more involved in English classes,” he suggests. Seems there’s no good substitute for knowing the grammar and structure of your language. Also “see and participate in live theater.” It’s best to not only watch a lot of shows, but to have the experience of being in shows too.

A final pearl from Metten for youth interested in acting and playwriting: “Read the great works of literature — novels, plays and poetry.” Think “Les Miserables,” “Gone With the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

And, of course, William Shakespeare.

— Lynn

Note: At the time this post was written, the temperature in Cedar City was 36° lower than the temperature in Scottsdale — another great reason to check out the festival this month.

Coming up: Sister cities adventures

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