MU students head to D.C. for national theater festival

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:16 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 8, 2009

COLUMBIA — In January, Jessica Huang sat in an auditorium at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and listened as a panel of playwrights and theater professionals critiqued her work. They drew attention to the metaphors, intimacy and subtlety in her writing.

Huang's 10-minute play, "Mermaids," was the highlight of its category at that regional arm of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. It won Huang, an MU senior from the Minneapolis area, a chance to advance to the national festival in Washington, D.C., an honor given to just four 10-minute plays from across the country.

Huang got the hoped-for news in a phone call from David Crespy, assistant professor of playwriting at MU and Region V's playwriting chairman for the festival.

"Crespy called me in class, and I didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing," she said. "We hadn't really been talking about anything but (the play) when we communicated, so I was really excited, and then class went so slow after that."

Huang, who is studying magazine journalism and anthropology, is one of five MU playwrights, most of them undergraduates, who will have advanced to the Kennedy Center in the past 10 years, Crespy said. She will attend workshops and seminars and see her play staged.

"Jessica actually took playwriting classes with me, but she wrote this on her own and brought it over to the Missouri Playwrights Workshop," Crespy said. "It wasn't me hanging over her. I'm excited that this is a play that came out of a student's desire to write new work."

Andy Pierce, a doctoral student in theater at MU, will also proceed to Washington with his dramaturgy project on the new play "Quindaro," named for the town Quindaro, Kan., where slaves crossed the Missouri River to enter the free state.

Pierce described the job of the dramaturg as understanding the world of the play.

"That ends up encompassing everything from the popular culture of the time, hobbies, architecture, just anything that I think might come up as a question from the actors, director or anyone else," he said.

The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival was founded in 1969. Each year, eight regions submit entries in acting, directing, design, playwriting and criticism, among other categories. The opportunities resulting from the competitions in both playwriting and dramaturgy include fellowships with nationally recognized theaters and even connections with Sundance, Crespy said.

One play and two dramaturgs will be awarded at the end of the festival. Crespy said he thinks Huang's play is strong and smart enough to win.

"She's really driven, and I know she's going to be working professionally as a writer somehow," Crespy said. "Whether that's in playwriting or journalism, she's demonstrating excellence in both areas."

This year's festival will be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., from April 14 to April 20.

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