Anthony J. Piccione
Normally, if someone were to use this hashtag, one might think that it’s some sort of Doctor Who reference. (At least, that’s what I noticed later on, after I started using it, myself.) This year, however, this hashtag has taken on a whole new meaning, in reference to the 10th anniversary season of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, New York’s premiere socially conscious and eco-friendly theatre festival, founded a decade ago by arts professional Glory Kadigan, and led this year by Producing Artistic Director Shaun Peknic, who is at the helm of one of the most passionate and enthusiastic festival staff teams you’ll find in New York, which his overseeing dozens of bold new shows from various genres.
This summer, I myself have been producing the movement-based play 4 $tages – which explores themes of social and economic inequality and is benefitting the grassroots organization Our Revolution, and is the 7th one-act I’ve written to be produced in NYC – and while I’ve been going through this process, I’ve gotten to know many talented artists. Not just amongst the actors and director of my show, but amongst the many other individuals who are bringing this year’s “Tenth Planet” shows to life, and over the past month of so, I had the chance to talk with them, and ask them their thoughts about being in the festivity.
Starting on July 9th, PCTF will host nearly 50 wide-ranging productions right up to August 5th,,. They range from traditional plays to musical theatre to avant-garde performance, and just about everything in-between! Among these productions is A Hand Across the Bridge, a new drama from Jonathan G. Galvez about a group of college friends, which touches on timely subjects such as alcoholism and sexual assault. “[They] come back together after ten years, and reflect on their last year in college and the one night that changed and affected their lives,” he says, while explaining this is merely one play in a sixteen-play series. “I'm seeing some of these characters come to life for the first time, and it'll be exciting to know how the basis for my series is taken by the audience.”
Meanwhile, Surfacing – a contemporary new drama from Mike Poblete – explores themes of mental illness and sex in the age of Tinder. Poblete says of his play, “I wrote [it] to honor all of the artists with the weight of the world on their shoulders, the savage and hilarious implications in a world where we can swipe a million faces in and out of our lives, and how all that affects the poor fools that still try to love us.” There’s also The 11th Dimension from award-winning performance artist Roi Escudero, which is described as a cross between the postmodern theatre Artaud series and The Bubulinos series. As Escudero puts it, “[It] is a post-modern theatrical installation of performance-art cinéma, inspired by The Theory of Everything, Antonin Artaud, Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of “a body without organs” and La Divina Commedia. It blends fantasy with real facts, magic realism, surreal humor, and a persuasive visual art collage containing nostalgic music hits. It is a vérité tale told in the 11th Dimension by Artaud and the existential heroic beings of light, the Bubulinos.”
One of the most unique aspects of the Planet Connections Festivity – which sets itself apart from other theatre festivals – is that every production is asked to select a charity or non-profit organization to benefit and raise awareness for. For example, Girl Inside the Mirror – a movement-based piece by Nicoletta Mandriotti about a young Latin-American girl exploring her inner consciousness, featuring an all female cast – is benefitting WIN (Women in NEED), an organization which supports homeless women and families. “It breaks my heart every time I see families being separated, women that can´t raise their children in a proper, free and supported way,” says Mandriotti. “I am talking to them to be more involved; whatever we can do to offer emotional support is good. Even with a smile…with a touch. Everything counts. We live in a world with so much aggression and indifference that it really frustrates me.”
Then, there’s the show WYSIWYG the Musical, a show based on the true story of a young transgender woman which explores the differences between real life and online life, and is benefitting Ackerman Institute for the Family. As composer April Alsup puts it, “The Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project empowers youth, families and communities by providing gender affirmative services, training and research,” before going on to say they “chose Ackerman because when a family has an individual transition, like mine, the whole family and community transitions along with them. Ackerman’s message of authenticity closely matches our show. It was a match made in heaven.” Meanwhile, The Nuclear Plays by Anthony Pennino is benefitting the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. “When I was growing up, we were very much aware of the possibility of nuclear war,” Mr. Pennino says of his play and its associated organization. “Now, the threat still exists, but it simply is not on people’s radar … So this project is one of many, including a graphic novel and video games, to reignite the conversation about nuclear risk.”
Indeed, there’s a great deal of diversity amongst the artists and productions in this festivity, both in terms of the shows themselves, and the messages they seek to spread. However, if there’s anything that unites all of us, as artists, it seems to be our passion for art, and the ability of independent art to spread such messages, and also to spark creative innovation that might not be possible elsewhere. “Of course, independent theatre is where we go to take big risks,” says Erik Champney, the playwright behind the provocative new show Dead Brains, adding that “organizations like Planet Connections provide playwrights and directors with a laboratory, in which they are free to play with their chemistry sets, away from the scrutinizing eye of commercial theatre.” Kimerer LaMothe – the woman behind Happy If Happy When, which is described as a real life musical based on a real life family – adds that “[a]rt is essential to human health and well-being,” and that “[a]ny culture needs art that does not serve the interests of any system or institution but serves people. Any culture needs artists who are open to sensing patterns of pain and struggle that real humans are experiencing – and who can find the play in the moment.” As Aileen Kyoko – the playwright behind the dramedy The Year of the Solar Eclipse – puts it, “[T]he process of creating indie art can be a struggle. However, it's that struggle that keeps you pushing. It keeps life exciting, because there is something at stake and something to work towards. That's the way I like to look at it. It's all about the thrill of putting all your energy into your art. ”
Based on my own production experiences, both here thus far and elsewhere, I will say that the vibe at Planet Connections is different, in that there is much more of an emphasis on not just presenting creative and thought-provoking works, but on community building amongst the artists and the people who attend shows. That’s not a knock on other theatre festivals. It’s not as if their obligated to do that, necessarily. Still, this is definitely a welcome aspect of this festival, which makes it easy for me to see why so many artists keep coming back here in future years, and have thus far left me with nothing but nice things to say about the festivity and the people who make it possible.
Besides our previously mentioned passion for art itself, another thing that seems to unite many of us is how invested we are in our own individual productions, and our hopes for their respective futures. Amie Cazel says of her show Pregnant Pause, inspired by her own real-life pregnancy while in grad school, “We'd love for communities to use this play as a jumping off point for hard discussions about working women and the challenges we face, [and] for actresses in their thirties and forties all over the country to just pick up this play, memorize it and self-produce it as a showcase piece for themselves,” while Elyssa Nicole Trust says of her play BT: Master of Return which explores the cultural gaps between religious and secular Jews, “I want [it] to have a long life and hope that Planet Connections is only the beginning. I would love for it to be performed at regional theatres all over the country. I also hope to get it published.” Others, such as Lenny Schwartz – the Rhode Island-based playwright behind the vampire-themed musical The Inside of His Severed Head – seem to have even more ambitious things in mind, for their work, stating “I hope to bring it to Broadway. But don’t we all? I hope it has a life after this. It’s been a magical experience either way.”
Indeed, excitement for the forthcoming premieres of these shows is clearly in the air, as the festivity opening rapidly approaches. This enthusiasm that I speak of was perhaps best reflected by Robert Gelberg, whose new drama exploring the theme of empathy – The Sundogs –premieres this summer. A longtime frequent artist at PCTF, he provided with me a clear and eloquent description of this festivity’s greatness, and why so many keep coming back each year. I thought I’d leave our readers here with these words from him:
“I’ve been involved with half of Planet Connections’ seasons. I was there at the very beginning, and now that I’m here at the 10th anniversary I look back at the astounding growth the festival has experienced and smile because although everything about the festival has changed, nothing has changed. It still feels like the way it did in 2008: a bunch of people working together to produce some plays and raise some money for some good causes. The spirit and joy of the festival hasn’t changed even though the size, scope, and reach of the festival has. Back in ’08 we may not have anticipated rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jose Rivera, and yet here we are. I think that’s a testament to how Glory and her teams over the years have run the festival; they’ve expanded with commendable ambition and drive, but the goal has never changed, which means the spirit has never changed. I’m honored to be part of this festival.”
For more information on the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, running at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center from July 9th-August 5th, please visit www.planetconnections.org.
Photo: @dianawyenn stars in dance/performance piece Blood/Sugar, presented by @plainwoodproductions
Anthony J. Piccione is an award-winning playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the Hudson Guild Theatre, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His short drama “What I Left Behind” was named the NYWinterfest’s Best Short Play of 2018, while his avant-garde one-act “4 $tages” is set to premiere this summer at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.