Theater Masters convenes for annual Aspen festival

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Young playwrights from around the country and the Roaring Fork Valley are working with established pros this weekend, as Theater Masters hosts its annual festival in Aspen.

The nonprofit hosts panel discussions today, and then stages “Take Ten,” a collection of new 10-minute plays, Sunday through Tuesday at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theater.

The plays are the winning entries from Theater Masters’ two contests — one among graduate students nationwide, and one among local high schoolers. They’re directed by established professionals from New York, and performed by a cast of 22 local actors. The cast includes local performers like Franz Alderfer, Ed Foran, Nina Gabianelli, Nick Garay and Rett Harper.

Past “Take Ten” winners have gone on to see their work produced off-Broadway and at regional theaters across the U.S.

This year’s winning Master of Fine Arts plays come from students in the graduate programs at Columbia, Northwestern, New York and Carnegie Mellon universities, among others. At the end of April, the “Take Ten” plays get a run in New York City.

The winning local plays are “Who’s Paying?” by Aspen High School’s Talitha Jones and “Death of Decisions” by Glenwood Springs High School senior Jamie Harris. Through Theater Masters, the young writers have been working with professional directors since December to bring the plays to the stage this weekend.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for young people in the valley,” said Julia Hansen, Theater Masters’ founder and artistic director.

Joseph Ward, a Brooklyn-based theater director, is directing Harris’ play, which explores family responsibilities during the apocalypse.

“It’s impressive to see those kinds of themes explored by a playwright of his age,” said Ward.

Harris has rewritten lines and refined the short work during rehearsals over the last week, working with Ward and his actors to hone its performance.

The Theater Masters program, founded in 2001, began with bringing experienced theater directors to Aspen to teach local actors, but has expanded into a launching pad for young playwrights through such experiences.

Naomi MacDougall Jones, a 2005 Aspen High graduate, won a Theater Masters competition, for example, and has gone on to see her plays produced in New York and landed roles acting in independent films and the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire.” She wrote and stars in the film “Imagine I’m Beautiful,” which is set for a spring release, and will make the rounds on the film festival circuit this year. MacDougall Jones also serves as producer for “Take 10.”

Her advice to young aspiring playwrights is to be persistent, and to listen to advice from those with experience, as she did.

“You just need to keep writing and know that it will take a while to find your own voice,” she said.

The public portion of Theater Masters begins today, with a panel titled “Where Ideas Come to Life Onstage,” with actor and producer Robert LuPone, along with playwright and creator of the TV musical drama “Smash” Theresa Rebeck, and others. The presentation is free and open to the public, in the Koch Room at the Aspen Institute at 5 p.m. It will be followed by panels of playwrights from Theater Masters’ National Master of Fine Arts and Aspiring Playwrights competitions.

LuPone, who was nominated for a Tony in 1976 for his role in “A Chorus Line,” also will speak to Aspen High students about the play this week, as he and the Theater Masters guests address theater students in local schools.

For “Take Ten” tickets and more information, visit www.theatermasters.org.

andrew@aspendailynews.com