New playwright residency program allows theater students to work on new plays

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Darrell Hoemann/Illinois Theatre Noah Smith as Liridon Sterling, Kim Fernandez as Evren Andraste, Joseph Primes as Darkling and Jamal Turner as Eld rehearse “A Darkling at Nightfall.” Photo by Darrell Hoemann

By Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau

Theatre students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign worked during the past two weeks with a playwright developing a new play as part of the inaugural workshop of the theatre department’s Daniel J. Sullivan Playwright-in-Residence Program. The play, “A Darkling at Nightfall,” will have its first public readings during three workshop performances Sept. 21-23 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Mallory Raven-Ellen Backstrom, a playwright at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, wrote “A Darkling at Nightfall” and worked on the play for two weeks in the residency at the U. of I. She heard it read in actors’ voices, was able to experiment with changes and will get feedback by observing the audiences’ reactions during the public readings. Backstrom also spent time in classes and worked with students who are developing their own work as playwrights, said Lisa Dixon, an acting professor and the producer for Illinois Theatre.

“It’s a fluid time for playwrights if they want to experiment with things,” Dixon said of the early stages of creating a new work. “Our audiences can be as sophisticated as any New York or Chicago or Atlanta audiences, and their feedback is valuable to the playwright. I hope we can become one of the nationally known go-to places where playwrights can come and work on their piece for a couple of weeks, as well as being in classes and speaking to students.”

Photo of two actors on stage in front of music stands. A woman in a long patchwork dress gestures as a man in a light orange t-shirt and jeans looks down.
Kim Fernandez as Evren Andraste and Joseph Primes as Darkling during rehearsal. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

Dixon read the first act of Backstrom’s new play while performing in Chicago last winter. She said she immediately connected to it and wanted to work with Backstrom.

“I really fell for her work,” said Dixon, who is directing the workshop readings of the play.

Backstrom describes her work as “fairy tales for sun-kissed women,” and it is centered around women of color, Dixon said. While “A Darkling at Nightfall” was written for an all-Black cast, the readings at Krannert Center will feature students of all races.

Photo of an actor lying across a chair with his feet up and his head back and mouth open, as though screaming.
Alex George as The Fox Spirit. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

The play is a fantasy that delves into ecological issues, Dixon said.

“It’s very sweet, funny and charming, but it also has a bite to it,” she said.

The “darkling” of the play, Evren, is a forest spirit creature whose father was a spirit, representing nature, and whose mother was human. While Evren is the main protagonist, the play features an ensemble cast.

Evren meets a human boy and travels between the forest and the human world, where she must contend with concrete under her feet, alarm clocks and cellphones. The story tells how she interacts with the nonnatural world while working to save the natural world, Dixon said.

Photo of an actor standing in front of a music stand and gesturing, with a video screen showing abstract images behind him.
Noah Smith as Liridon Sterling. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

“Nightfall is the idea that our world is burning in many ways,” she said.

The readings will be performed without costumes, props or scenery, with the actors standing before music stands holding their scripts. Even so, the workshop has involved a design team, led by scenic design professor Reiko Huffman. Students conceptualized how scenery, lighting and sound might distinguish between the human world and the fantasy realm of the forest, Dixon said.

“Our main priority is to be in service to the playwright, but students also get to learn what it’s like to work on a new play and what kind of imaginative muscle and ideas and thoughts they have to bring to a play that is literally beginning,” Dixon said. “They get to imagine it in a much larger way.”

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