William Inge Theater Festival Honors Playwrights

June 12, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

THEATER PERFORMER (singing): New York,
New York, a visitors’ place, where no one
lives on account of the pace, but seven millions are screaming for space, New York, New

JEFFREY BROWN: For one week a year, a small town in
southeastern Kansas
makes itself the center of the theater world.

New York,” it is still a hell of a town,
but then so is Independence,

THEATER PERFORMER: This is the life.

JEFFREY BROWN: The William Inge Theater Festival has plenty
of drama…


JEFFREY BROWN: … and song…

THEATER PERFORMER: Maybe this time I’ll be lucky…

JEFFREY BROWN: … but most striking, at least at first, is
just how completely unexpected it is.

When you think of American theater, Independence, Kansas
might not be the first place that springs to mind. This is way off-Broadway. But
here a small community and a big idea have come together to produce a
25-year-old hit, a festival that honors the nation’s playwrights.

PETER ELLENSTEIN, Artistic Director, Inge Center for the
Arts: It is odd. It’s totally incongruous. It’s something you would never
expect to find in a small, rural, Kansas town.

JEFFREY BROWN: The key, says Los Angeles native, Peter
Ellenstein, the festival’s artistic director, is the mix of people and the
focus on the writers.

PETER ELLENSTEIN: Playwrights are the smartest people in the
American theater. They are the people who allow us, through their storytelling,
to experience more what it is to be a human, and to grow, and to feel more
sensitive, and finally to feel more alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many giants of the American stage have
journeyed to Independence to celebrate and be celebrated: Arthur Miller, Neil
Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Wendy Wasserstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Greene.

THEATER PERFORMERS (singing): We will laugh out loud. We’re
so lucky to be we.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here their works are performed, their craft
dissected and discussed by nationally known professionals and scholars, as well
as local thespians and theater-goers.

Honoring a playwright

TINA HOWE, Playwright: It was a big mistake. She didn't knowhow and she didn't...

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year's honoree was Tina Howe, who's wonmany awards but experienced nothing quite like this.

You are a lifelong New Yorker, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So what happened when you came here for thefirst time? What did you see?

TINA HOWE: I saw Oz. I thought I was going to see Kansas, but I saw Oz. WhenI walked down the street, people would say, "Are you with the IngeFestival? Are you a playwright? Are you a playwright?" And they would opentheir arms, and they would welcome me everywhere I went.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, this community of 10,000 firstturned out to honor one of its own, William Inge, who was born in Independence in 1913. Ina remarkably short period of the 1950s, Inge wrote four hit Broadway plays,"Come Back, Little Sheba" 1950, "Picnic," which won thePulitzer Prize in 1953 and was made into a hit film with William Holden and KimNovak.

FILM ACTOR, "Picnic": Maybe a little town likethis is the place to settle down, where people are easygoing and sincere.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Bus Stop" came in 1955, and"The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" in 1957.

RALPH VOSS, University of Alabama: Inge was the first one towrite about people in small Midwestern towns and it came out in plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: University of Alabama Professor Ralph Voss isan Inge biographer.

RALPH VOSS: It just so happened that tastes on Broadway inthe 1950s somehow were just right for stories about people who lived out inthis part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inge also won an Oscar in 1961 for thescreenplay to "Splendor in the Grass," which starred Natalie Wood andfeatured the debut of Warren Beatty.

But when tastes changed, Inge, who struggled with hishomosexuality and later with alcoholism, fell out of favor and wrote a stringof flops.

RALPH VOSS: It turned very quickly, because the 1960sushered in a greater tolerance in terms of drama, the rise of the absurdists onstage, and a greater pushing of envelope on sexuality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mired in depression, Inge took his own lifein 1973. At the festival, scenes from Inge's plays are performed daily at hisboyhood home by student theater groups.

Writing on Kansas

THEATER PERFORMER: Where have you been?

THEATER PERFORMER: Why is your business where I've been? I'vebeen in Londonto see the queen.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his former drawing room, the Midwest of the first half of the 20th century is broughtto life.

JAMES STILL, Playwright: And the third scene is a scenebetween the brother and the sister...

JEFFREY BROWN: Playwright James Still, a winner of thefestival's New Voices Award in 2000, says reading Inge for the first time as ayoung Kansan was a revelation.

JAMES STILL: Independenceis a big town compared to the town I grew up in, but this guy wrote plays aboutpeople like my parents and people in my town. It was the first time I'd read anythingthat was like the world I lived in.

KEVIN WILLMOTT, Director: When you're writing a script, whodo you write it for?

JEFFREY BROWN: Another Kansan, Kevin Willmott, decided notonly to tell his region's stories, but to remain here. Willmott is an actor,writer and director of several films, most recently "The ConfederateStates of America."

KEVIN WILLMOTT: What I found here in Kansas is to stay here,remain here, and using the resources here to tell my story, and believing thatthe bigger world is going to get it, that they're going to -- you know, canconnect it with, and you can sell it to them, and that they can understand itand appreciate it.

A town-wide event

JEFFREY BROWN: None of what goes on at the festival workswithout the active involvement of the townspeople of Independence. It was a local theater teacherand friend of William Inge, Margaret Goheen, who started it all, and many ofher students are volunteers to this day.

Leseley Simpson coordinates all daytime events at thefestival.

LESELEY SIMPSON, Inge Festival Volunteer: A lot of thepeople here like cultural things. And if we volunteer to get it brought us to,you know, so be it. I mean, if that's what it takes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Local beer distributor Drew Demo haschauffeured many a-Broadway bigwig, including a memorable trip with StephenSondheim in 1998.

DREW DEMO, Inge Festival Volunteer: As we got into Kansas, we passed afield that had buffalo up against the fence. And we had to stop the car so hecould see the buffalo up close and personal.

JEFFREY BROWN: He'd never seen a buffalo?

DREW DEMO: Never seen a buffalo before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most events are held on the grounds of Independence Community College, which Inge attendedin the 1930s. Students receive instruction from veteran performers insinging...

PERFORMING INSTRUCTOR: And you need to play a couple morelevels than what you're doing right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... in the mechanics of acting...

PERFORMING INSTRUCTOR: It's got to mean everything in theworld to you or else it won't mean anything to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and advice on the unpredictable roadtoward making it.

PERFORMING INSTRUCTOR: A week later, I got on a plane, flewback to New York,and I finally had an agent. It took me four years.

Making it big in a small town

JEFFREY BROWN: Such warnings are part of a healthy dose ofreality dispensed to budding playwrights and actors at the festival from thosewho know. Colin Denby Swanson was a playwright in residence in Independence four yearsago.

COLIN DENBY SWANSON, Playwright: If I get a signed rejectionletter from a theater company, where someone's actually signed it in ink, I'mthrilled.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're thrilled to get the rejection letter,because they noticed?

COLIN DENBY SWANSON: I'm totally thrilled, yes. Well, theyread the play.

JEFFREY BROWN: And since failure and rejection are facts oflife in the arts, Peter Ellenstein says the theater's future may well depend onplaces like Independence Community College.

PETER ELLENSTEIN: The commercial theater has to succeed orfall on whether you have a hit, on whether the piece succeeds. But likescientific research, most art is about experimentation, and the majority of itdoesn't entirely work.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have the ability to fail?

PETER ELLENSTEIN: We have the ability to fail; and,therefore, you can take chances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Independence, Kansas, has been taking chancesnow for 25 years. Instead of honoring one playwright, this year was a celebrationof them all and of a unique event in a most unlikely center of the wide worldof American theater.

THEATER PERFORMER (singing): ... it's a hell of a town!