Sunday, April 30, 2006

“If You Can Make It Here…”

The 25th annual William Inge Theatre Festival ended last night with a tribute in words, pictures, and music to the playwrights that have been honored here since 1981 — Jerome Lawrence, Robert Anderson, Horton Foote, Edward Albee, Peter Shaffer, Wendy Wasserstein, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, Terrance McNally, Lanford Wilson, John Guare, A.R. Gurney, Tina Howe, and a lot more that I’m forgetting off the top of my head — plus the playwrights who have participated in the festival as New Voices and have gone on to fame and production such as David Hirson (La Bete) and Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change). We also honored the memory of the man for whom the festival is named — William Inge — and looked at his life and the plays that he wrote that have become a part of theatre history, starting with Come Back, Little Sheba and followed by Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Members of Inge’s family — nieces, nephews, and their descendants — and co-workers, friends, and scholars reviewed the life of Inge and his impact on contemporary theatre.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is the energy and inspiration that comes out of this annual event. If you look at the list of the playwrights who have, over the years, made their way to this small town in the heartland of Kansas to participate in this festival and conference at the smallest community college in the state, you realize that this is no ordinary event. It’s not just a tribute to a playwright who died over thirty years ago; it’s an affirmation that the art of theatre and writing is not dead in this country, nor, judging by the turnout of young people to the playwriting workshops and master classes, plus the many acting workshops, is the interest by young people in performing on stage in a play in front of a live audience. These kids and young adults come from the smallest towns in the state to see and learn from some of the greatest voices in American drama. They believe that it doesn’t matter where you come from — “It’s not where you start, but where you finish” — and that they can follow their dreams, learn their crafts, and go on to university theatre, regional theatre, even Broadway. It worked for a lot of the people who were here this weekend, including the man for whom the festival was named.

In 2002 the festival honored the works of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, Chicago, and that now classic song, “New York, New York.” The festival ended with everyone singing that song last night. It may seem a bit incongruous to sing a song about the Big Apple when you’re in Independence, Kansas, but in a way it worked: if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, and that applied not just to the big city but to a small town. William Inge once noted, “Big people come from small towns.”

I took a lot of pictures — more than you’d want to see here — so I’m going to spend the next couple of days putting them together and coming up with some of my favorites. Meanwhile, the Old Professor (who said he has had the time of his life) are packing up for our drive back to Tulsa, then the flights home. Forgive the lack of posting for the last few days — I’ll be back to the regular routine on Monday — but I think I have a pretty good excuse.

William Inge – 1913-1973