Playwright Kirt Shineman had a rare opportunity earlier this year, one he’s sure he’ll never have again. “It was at my wedding,” he says, “and I was watching the people I based the characters in my new play on, talking to the actors who are playing them.”
That new play is Junction Creek, which debuts this week as part of the Dan Schay New Works Festival at Theater Works in Peoria. The fourth annual series was formerly known as the New Works Festival; when Schay, the company’s executive director, died earlier this year, the board moved to rename the festival, which he’d co-founded with playwright Richard Warren.
“He’d done so much for new works throughout his career,” Shineman says of Schay. “He felt the only way to keep a theater alive was to balance new work by local playwrights with the classics. He believed in fostering the playwright as well as the play.”
Shineman experienced Schay’s support firsthand. The playwright had been talking about a trilogy of plays he wanted to write. Each would be set in a different era, but in the same mobile home. Each would involve the women in a single family and the consequences of bad choices they make in life. The playwright, who based his series on his own family life, was overwhelmed at first.
“But then Dan just wrapped his arms around this trilogy,” Shineman says. “He started talking about how it was so William Inge, so American. His support and his belief in these plays really got me going.”
Schay’s interest in the Shineman trilogy helped in other ways. Much of the cast of Benkelman, the first play in the series which Shineman debuted at last year’s festival, are returning this year.
“That’s mostly because they know how much Dan thought of this work,” Shineman says. “They’re back because they want to continue Dan’s vision of these plays.”
The returning cast, which includes Maren Maclean and Linda Warren, are this time telling Shineman’s story about Julie Ann, who represents, he says, all those young women who went off to college in the 1980s not because they necessarily wanted to, but because it was expected of them.
“She’s based on my sister,” Shineman admits. “She’s looking at how choices in her young life change things later on. What happens when you’re faced with new things like whether or not to try drugs, or what to do when you’re being sexually harassed. When you’re young, your early choices can empower you or they can hurt you.”
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The Schay festival includes new work by well-known local playwrights like Ben Tyler and co-founder Richard Warren, as well as a trio of student one-acts by the winners of the company’s young playwrights competition. More surprising is the inclusion of a play by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, whose The Things We Do is billed as “a comedy about modern love.”
“Dan was always casting around for playwrights from all over,” Shineman says about the Woods play. “He knew there was untapped talent out there, everywhere.”
Theater Works presents the Dan Schay New Works Festival from July 8 through 24. Costs vary for specific productions, though the majority of tickets are $12 per person. For more information and a complete schedule, see the Theater Works website.