York theatre students launch new plays by rookie playwrights

In virtually every field, but perhaps especially in the arts, it’s accepted wisdom that every aspiring professional “needs to start somewhere”. Even William Shakespeare was once a rookie actor and playwright, and back in 1592 he was criticized in a literary pamphlet by playwright Robert Greene as an “upstart crow”.

Fourth-year York University theatre students Dan Vena and Joel Pettigrew took inspiration from that moment over four centuries ago to create a launching pad for up-and-coming Toronto playwrights. They’ve established a dramaturgical development program that culminates in a public performance downtown tomorrow. Both the process and the presentation are dubbed The UpStart CrowS Festival.

Right: Dan Vena (left) and Joel Pettigrew. Photo by Jesslyn Miller.

Vena and Pettigrew found the talent and the material for UpStart CrowS through a call for submissions. They selected works by three young York playwrights: alumnus Evan Vipond (BA Spec. Hons. ’10) and third-year theatre students Christopher Douglas and Robbie Woods. The key aspect of the development process was feedback from two dramaturges whom Vena and Pettigrew recruited from their York theatre student network: fellow fourth-year student Jesslyn Miller and third-year student Hilary Sherman.

Excerpts from the three plays will be presented tomorrow at the Toronto saloon The Press Club at 850 Dundas St. W. The staged readings start at 8pm. Admission is pay-what-you-can at the door.

With virtually all members of the team having experience in Toronto’s Fringe Festival, York’s annual playGround festival of new plays in development, or independent theatrical endeavours, they were ready for a new challenge.

“Turning a shared dream Dan and I had into a reality has been a fantastic collaborative process,” said Pettigrew. “And producing this live event – including having to find a new venue on short notice when our original choice shut down, and working with a virtually non-existent production budget – has been an amazing learning experience.”

“We wanted to bolster the voice of new playwrights by nurturing promising works and showcasing them outside of a university or college campus environment,” said Vena. “As artistic directors, we hope that the playwrights took away a lot of valuable feedback and have made significant headway on their works-in-progress. We have a feeling that this won’t be the only time these shows take the stage, and we’re looking forward to finding out what the audience thinks.”

The three featured works tackle hard questions about human nature.

Douglas’s Superheroes looks at a pair of messed-up teenagers in violent trouble in high school. Vipond’s No/Body explores the possibility of creating one’s identity through body modification. Woods’s The Man in the Balaclava is about a disparate trio who find themselves drawn to one bone-chilling conclusion.

With casts recruited by the playwrights, UpStart CrowS production meetings have turned into rehearsals for the staged reading tomorrow.

“We’ve been so busy making it happen that we haven’t had any time to get nervous,” said Vena. “Besides, crows don’t get butterflies.”