Matilda: You just want to stir trouble, don’t you?
Simon: Tell me you don’t want a little excitement.
— From “The Smoke Watcher” by Bela Marcus
The sky is big and the landscape vast, but Tower 5 is getting crowded.
Perched on a high balcony, aging park ranger Simon scans the horizon and uses the emergency radio to raise an old flame. Younger colleagues stop for coffee and chat about retirement. Lucas and Amelia, Simon’s son and daughter-in-law, pine for moments of privacy. But when the forest gets this dry, every spark becomes a threat.
In “The Smoke Watcher,” senior Bela Marcus explores family, devotion and the echoes of long-held secrets. At 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22, “The Smoke Watcher” will receive its world premiere staged reading as part of the 2023 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival.
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. All plays are selected by “blind” submission, with author names removed during adjudication. Each playwright then spends two weeks working with a director and dramaturg as well as cast and crew. The process culminates in a staged reading in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
In addition to “The Smoke Watcher,” the Sept. 22 program will include Marcus’ short play “Lost Cat,” a tragi-comic meditation on the nature of the irreversible.
The festival then will continue at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, with “Minds at Work” by junior Maddy Klass. Loosely inspired by the early 19th century transcendentalists, “Minds at Work” follows three scholars — Elliot, Archie and Brian — as they sort through the papers of a recently deceased colleague, Monica. Affairs are ordered, edges rounded and jealousies navigated, well or badly. But can these learned men truly comprehend the import of Monica’s rebellions?
Concluding the festival, immediately after “Minds at Work,” will be “Now Boarding,” a short play by graduate student Charlie Meyers. When Jo’s flight to New York is delayed by weather, distinctions between airport hospitality, emotional purgatory and existential crisis grow perilously fine.
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.
The 2023 festival is coordinated by Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama and director of undergraduate studies in drama in Arts & Sciences. Guest artist Mead Hunter, a theater veteran who has worked with the Storefront Actors’ Theatre, A.S.K. Theatre Projects, the Mark Tabor Forum and the Kennedy Center, among many others, serves as dramaturg. The adjudication committee included Urice and Hunter as well as Anna Pileggi, a professor of practice in drama, and Ron Himes, the Henry E. Hampton, Jr. Artist-in-Residence.
“The Smoke Watcher” and “Lost Cat” are directed by guest director Sarah Whitney, with assistance by Emily Duggins Ehling, a master of fine arts candidate in dance. “Minds at Work” and “Now Boarding” are directed by William Whitaker, a professor of practice in drama, with assistance from senior Eliza Rocks.
The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. All readings are free and open to the public. For more information, call 314-935-5858, visit pad.wustl.edu or follow the department on Facebook and Instagram.