All the plays and interludes which…had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act…for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon their countenances.

Thus Daniel Defoe wrote in Journal of the Plague Year (1722), his account of the Great Plague of London in 1665. As in the current pandemic, live theatre was stopped.  However, unlike today, there was little alternative for theatrical creativity outside what people could muster while shut up in their homes.  Last year, when our shut down occurred, theatres around the country rapidly sought alternative means for reaching their publics, generating ways of working that will likely stay with us once the pandemic is over.  And that’s where our annual New Play Festival is today:  reaching you in a virtual manner, but with the same level of creative and collaborative energy that our department has brought to Festivals past.

Our virtual Festival, as unusual as it is, builds squarely on our department’s forty-year history of Festivals, which have been devoted to producing, reading, and analyzing new scripts from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. The Workshop was formally organized in the fall of 1971, although a strong tradition of playwriting has existed at the University since 1921, when the department was under the leadership of E. C. Mabie. Head of the department from 1920 until his death in 1956, Mabie was dedicated to the writing and production of original plays.

The Workshop was one of the first university programs to concentrate solely on playwriting and is one of the most production-oriented playwriting programs in the country. Many of the plays premiered during Festival have gone on to win prestigious awards and have been produced at professional theatres throughout this country and abroad.

Preparing twelve new plays, especially in the virtual environment, is a monumental undertaking that is only possible through the utilization of UI Department of Theatre Arts’ wide-ranging resources in acting, directing, design, dramaturgy, stage management, and technical support. Through readings and productions, Festival showcases the process of new play development. While the play begins with the playwright’s vision, Festival’s focus is on the script-in-process, and on the artistic contributions the playwright’s collaborators make to bringing the play to life. Like the scripts, Festival productions are in-process. The purpose of readings and performances is to reveal the essential vision of the play.

New play development depends not only on the contributions of various artistic collaborators but also on responders: guest artists and audiences. Guest artists give dramaturgical feedback to both playwrights and their collaborators, and provide advice on the future artistic and professional life of the play. This year, we are continuing this tradition by enlisting a remarkable slate of theatre professionals who will be meeting with our playwrights and their collaborators over Zoom. There is an opportunity to hear these guests on Friday, May 7, in a Zoom panel addressing “Current Theatre: Where We Are, Where We’re Going.”  (Zoom link to be announced on the Department of Theatre Arts website).

We thank you for your support in attending this year’s virtual productions and readings. And we look forward to seeing you in person soon on a day like the one Defoe describes near the end of his Journal:

They shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before. They would open their windows and call from one house to another, and ask how they did, and if they had heard the good news...that the plague was abated.  And they would cry out, ‘God be praised!’ and would weep aloud for joy.

Art Borreca
Artistic Director, Iowa New Play Festival