When it comes to originality, local writers abound in Wilmington and bring to life words and worlds that captivate and draw in audiences with ruminations on the human spirit. And isn’t that what art does—help us process our emotions, actions, and intrinsice levels of being?
Playwrights, particularly, seem to be prolific across our town, perhaps because of our burgeoning theatre scene or maybe because of our hopefully resurging film industry. It’s no wonder each year we have the opportunity to see more than a dozen or so original plays come to life on local stages. The beginning of 2016 is looking good on this front, as Up All Night Productions and Big Dawg Productions host all-original, new works by local playwrights Z.F. Mims and John Grudzien, as well as local youth. Both will take place beginning this week and run for two weekends. I interviewed Mims and Grudzien about their offerings.
An Evening of One Acts: Youth Plays and ‘Laughter, Love and Loss’
January 14-17 and 21-24
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
7 p.m. or 3 p.m. on Sun.
Big Dawg hosts its original youth plays at 7 p.m. over the next two weeks, as part of their Youth Play Festival from October. They’ll host “Miss Mayberry” by Gracie Rose Blackburn this weekend and “The Coffee House” written by Cecilia King next weekend. After the youth plays, local writer John Grudzien’s latest one-acts will close out the night, beginning at 8 p.m.
Grudzien will present “The Curse of the Diamond” and “The Care-Full Moving Company,” two shows following different trajectories of storytelling. Grudzien says each parallels ideas of the life cycle, from youth to middle-age to old-age, and how we evolve through the phases.
“I was inspired to write the two new plays as a counterpoint to what I experienced this year, both personally and in the world around us,” Grudzien tells. “[The shows explore] how we may first experience laughter and newness. Then the world messes with us, or we with the world, and we experience loss. Then, perhaps, we accept or understand what we had or have, and find light and maybe even love.”
The first show will be a comedy, while the latter is a drama, each of which Grudzien wrote over the summer. “The common thread is that they are their own individual works but come under the title of the production ‘Laughter, Loss and Light,’” he explains.
Various themes are explored, according to the show’s director and Big Dawg’s artistic director, Steve Vernon. Vernon is excited about approaching the one-acts with varied styles. “The Curse of the Diamond” is a melodramatic comedy about a famed yet cursed diamond and the adventure travelers share in its search.
“It’s a very playful form,” Vernon attests, “and it is as unapologetic as comedy can get, while staying within the realm of good taste. It allows the actors to poke fun at themselves, as well as the story, in a way that furthers the action. There are conventions that are required, but the form itself creates a bond with the audience.”
Vernon approaches “The Care-Full Moving Company” with more sensitivity afforded to its actors. While set up like vignettes, all focused on the stress of moving, it explores a theme from different angles by way of character studies. “It’s less plot-driven,” Vernon notes. “[It] reflect[s] what audience members have probably experienced themselves, so the inspection of that theme isn’t limited to the performers.”
Once Grudzien dropped the pen on the paper, he opened the show into Vernon’s full scope—and with unabashed trust. As a playwright, the performance stage of creating a show provides influential feedback.
“It’s great watching the action spring to life,” he says. “I soon see and hear what was working in my script and what was not working. . . . We all push each other to develop and explore new stories, new roles and hopefully new levels of creativity. I only sit in on rehearsals when/if I’m needed.”
“John has a stable of actors that have worked on his plays in the past,” Vernon tells, “and they have a good grasp of how his shows evolve during the rehearsal period. They are used to the process of playing diverse roles in one night.”
Charles Auten and Terrie Batson will perform as Russian spies in the first piece and then fill the shoes of people who are facing extreme transformations in life. Other roles will be performed by Suzanne Nystrom, Jamie Davenport, Susan Auten, and Shawn Sproatt.
Big Dawg will continue to showcase original shows throughout 2016 as well, including UNCW professor Frank Timble’s “Extra Extra,” which will take place in June.
The Holiday Wrighters
January 14-17 and 21-24
Old Books on Front St. • 249 N. Front St.
8 p.m. or 2 p.m. on Sun.
Dramatic irony captivated former UNCW grad and local playwright Z.F. Mims in penning his latest play, “The Holiday Wrighters.” It began after viewing Alan Ayckbourn’s “Private Fears in Public Places” at UNCW in 2013.
“In the play there are two characters who go through this very subtle and understated back and forth,” Mims explains. “There’s clearly something going on between them, but it never gets explicitly discussed (at least, not successfully), and in the end everything basically goes back to the way it was at the beginning of the show.”
Mims began to tool around with character subtext in “The Holiday Wrighters,” which follows two playwrights who begin a collaboration. There are “moments where a character says something and the other doesn’t entirely get it, but we all understand what’s going on,” according to Mims. The plot delves into the intimacy of relationships and their masks of variation.
“Some people can easily jump into a relationship, whether it’s romantic, professional, or friendly, [and] instantly devote whatever part of themselves is necessary to make that relationship all it can be,” Mims states. “Others might have a harder time opening up to people in that capacity.”
The two characters—played by Arianna Tysinger and Nick Reed—are polar opposites and the show traverses their relationship through the course of one year. Though a couple of scenes and snippets of dialogue were reflective of Mims’ own life, the show itself is not autobiographical. However, its actors happen to be best friends of the playwright.
“We’ve been working together for at least a couple of years now,” Mims says,
and I’ve personally seen what they are capable of as artists. Their chemistry was a hard thing to pass up for a show like this. The two recently got engaged this past summer, so obviously, they’ve got a knack for talking to one another.”
The script is based around two people facing each other and communicating. Therefore, the power of their body and language cannot wane or the interaction loses its power. It’s part of Mims’ current fascination with the ways in which people work together.
“I put myself into the minds of the characters I’m creating,” Mims notes of his playwrighting process. “I come to different realizations about the world as I go. Writing can be wonderfully educational in that way. I went into this, thinking, I’m going to write a play where two people are writing a play together but romance gets in the way. What I realized as I was writing: There are so many similarities between creative relationships and romantic ones.”
Mims wrote “The Holiday Wrighters” first draft in a few days. Yet, around the same time, he was greenlighted to do “Brick,” which is nominated for the Star News Theater Award for Best Original Production. However, Mims came back to do re-edits for the hour-long show, which will debut in an alternative space, Old Books on Front Street.
“I’ve been wanting to put on a performance at Old Books for ages,” Mims tells. “The small space is perfect for a show like this, which is driven by character above all else. Any larger space would be unnecessary.”
This means it’s guerrilla theater at its finest—no large sound system or creative lighting. But it’s a serendipitous pairing, when considering the show’s literary aspects. As well, Mims will be performing on his baritone saxophone as part of the show. “This whole thing is very bare bones,” he says. “It’s basically just been the three of us throwing all of our talents together and seeing what we end up making.”
Seating is extremely limited, so tickets can be purchased for only $6 at Brown Paper Tickets or at Old Books.