Hotchner Festival presents two new plays

World premiere staged readings of 'The Fern' and 'Democratic Airlines' Sept. 23 and 24

Playwright and screenwriter Liza Birkenmeier, a 2008 alumna (center), works with seniors Zachary Stern and Melia Van Hecke as part of the 2022 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

This time, the election really matters.

Democratic Airlines Flight 987 is the New Gilded Age at 30,000 feet. First class dines on pan-seared Atlantic salmon. Economy is packed like pickles in a jar. But when the pilot dies halfway from New York to Los Angeles, panicked passengers must vote for a replacement.

Written by senior Zachary Stern, “Democratic Airlines” is one of two new plays being showcased in the 2022 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival. Also on the bill will be senior Melia Van Hecke’s “The Fern,” a contemporary spin on the Eastern European folktale of the fern flower. When five strangers gather at the summer solstice, whoever picks the flower shall be granted their heart’s truest wish.

Van Hecke

Sponsored by the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, the Hotchner Festival is modeled on professional theater development workshops. Each playwright spends two weeks working with directors and dramaturgs as well as cast and crew. The process culminates in a staged reading.

“The Hotchner Festival is such a rare and exciting opportunity,” said playwright and screenwriter Liza Birkenmeier, a 2008 alumna who is serving as this year’s dramaturg. “The first play I wrote was developed in this festival in 2008. I don’t know of anything comparable that’s available to undergraduate writers.”

All plays are selected through a “blind” submission process, meaning that during adjudication, author names are removed from scripts. Nevertheless, both Stern and Van Hecke are Hotchner veterans. Last year, Stern’s dryly dark “Kent Styles” was among the workshopped plays, while Van Hecke served as festival assistant.

“That feels particularly special,” Birkenmeier said, adding that “The Fern” and “Democratic Airlines” are both “structurally smart and thematically rich. I’m so pleased to help these writers hear and develop their work. It’s an honor to return.”

For Van Hecke, working with a full cast and hearing her words read aloud for the first time, can be surreal. “It’s exciting to finally get to listen to the story that I was watching in my head,” she explained. “But it’s also incredibly vulnerable. Sometimes I hear something and feel embarrassed. Then, just a few lines later, I’ll suddenly be elated!”

Stern concurred, noting that he spent much of last year’s rehearsals “learning how to be comfortable sharing my unfinished work with others.

“Now, I feel much more prepared to dive right into the process.”

About the Hotchner Festival


The Hotchner Festival is named for alumnus A.E. Hotchner (1917-2020), the acclaimed author and screenwriter who famously bested Tennessee Williams in a WashU student playwriting competition. This year’s festival is coordinated by Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama and director of undergraduate studies in drama. The adjudication committee included Urice and fellow PAD faculty members William Whitaker, Elizabeth Hunter and Ann Marie Mohr.

The reading of “The Fern” will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. Jeffery Matthews, professor of practice in drama, will direct, with assistance from Emily Duggins, a master’s candidate in dance. The reading of “Democratic Airlines” will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. Tom Martin, who has worked with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and many others, will serve as guest director, with assistance from Natasha Cole, a master’s candidate in drama.

Both readings will take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Both performances are free and open to the public. For more information about the production, call 314-935-5858, visit or follow the department on Facebook and Twitter.

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.

You Might Also Like