A Recap of the 2015 New England Regional Theatre Festival

Nancy Sasso Janis / OnStage Critic The Warner Theater's second stage, the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre was the site for the 2015 New England Regional Theatre Festival this weekend. In the playbill, Tori Richnavsky, Chairman of the Board of the Connecticut Community Theatre Association (CCTA,) welcomed the rest of New England as they hosted the NERF for the first time. The festival is held every other year and American Association of Community Theaters (AACT) Kay Armstrong from Dallas TX served as the festival commissioner for the regional festival.

Seven productions had been selected at the state level to participate at the regional level. New England is Region 1 and includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The last two did not send a production and it was the first time in 30 years that CT had participated.

Last October, the two CT productions were chosen on the Warner Theatre main stage, 'Winter Flowers' by the Warner Stage Company and 'Laundry and Bourbon' by Backyard Theater Company. The winner of the regional festival will advance to the national competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan in June. The winning cast, director, crew and the actual set will be traveling to Michigan to represent Region 1.

The festival takes two days to complete. The lobby of the Nancy Marine had a convention atmosphere, with a definite theater vibe. Festival attendees in various colors of branded tee shirts mixed with interested theater lovers as they waited for the next session. I ran into many familiar faces. Phoenix Stage Company's Ed Bassett, one of the co-chairs of the festival, told me that the two productions from the afternoon session had been impressive. Renee Purdy, the keeper of the Warner Costume Shop, brought along a couple of her most beautiful creations. Rob Richnavsky was preparing to teach a stage combat lesson to some very lucky students.

On Saturday, the competition opened with two entries from Massachusetts. The Hovey Players, now in its 79th season, presented 'Rabbit Hole' written by Boston's David Lindsey-Abaire. The Lexington Players, founded in 1995, brought their production of the rock musical 'Spring Awakening.'

I was only able to attend the festival for the evening productions from the hosting state. The first show was 'Winter Flowers,' a piece by Lily Rusek produced by the Warner at their 2013 International Playwright's Festival that I had been able to enjoy at the state level festival. The two person cast featured Lea Dmytryck and Jane Coughlin. The pair play aging sisters; all her life Delfie (Ms. Dmytryck) has taken care of her disabled sister Rosie who has the mental age of a seven-year-old. In the touching one act, the ill older sister must make end of life decisions for them both.

The young but mighty Backyard Theatre Ensemble brought their production of 'Laundry and Bourbon' by James McClure. Set on the back porch of a young woman in Maynard Texas, Elizabeth (Kailee Donovan) and her friend Hattie (Taylor Crofton) fold laundry and drink bourbon and coke. They are joined by the self-righteous Amy Lee (Tina Parziale) who brings along some gossip. This three character play had both comedy and sadness and was directed by Donato J. D'Albis.

The troupes must adhere to lots of strict rules before, during and after their performance. The crew has ten minutes to bring out their set that must fit completely into an offstage 10 foot by 10 foot square. Sound check must be fit into the time as well. The length of the performance itself must not exceed sixty minutes and then the time to strike the entire set must not exceed ten minutes. There is no censorship of the material, but the show must be something that the theater has actually produced.

Following each performance, a public adjudication is held. The two adjudicators, Scott Malia and Marsha L. Amato-Greenspan from Delaware, took to the stage with their notes to address the cast members, the crew, and the director seated in the front row. As the audience listens in, the theatrical pros offer their suggestions for improvement mixed in with heaps of praise. I honestly agreed with the vast majority of their feedback that was in no way mean spirited. I felt a silent connection with Mr. Malia as I took notes on paper on the notes he had taken on his tablet as he sat in a nearby row in the darkened theater.

The teacher in me requires that I share this thought on the future of community theater. The seat I chose also happened to be in front of a group of young adults that were a part of the production of 'Spring Awakening' from MA that had been presented during the afternoon session. (I knew this because they were proudly wearing purple tees with the show's title.) After respectfully watching the first of the evening performances, they began to discuss it. A part of me expected to hear some variation of "our show is better," but what I actually overheard was a thoughtful discussion of the quality of the performances, the technical aspects and the motivations of the characters. This was repeated after the final performance of the evening as they waited for the adjudicators to share their thoughts. These young people were a fine example of the best part of community theater: its volunteers.

The schedule for Sunday, March 1 is 'Dolls & Guys' by ActorSingers from New Hampshire, 'Boxer & Mary' by the Community Players of Concord (New Hampshire.) After the dinner break, the entry from Maine, 'Am I Blue?' by the Lewison-Auburn Community Theatre in Maine will be the final adjudicated production. A showcase performance by Oak Hill High School in Maine entitled 'World's Afire' will be presented while the adjudicators tally the scores and the awards are scheduled to be given out at approximately 9:30pm. I will post the winners as soon as I can.

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