Houston’s only festival for high school playwrights is accepting submissions

“Keep Your Head Above the Water” by 2020 student playwright winner Rachel Iliev, directed by Christine Weems; (L-R: Justin Bernard as Jake, Chris Szeto-Joe as Quinn, Helen Rios as Shalla) / photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Founded in 2015, Dirt Dogs Theatre Company “collaborates with other Houston artists and playwrights to provide an opportunity for new works to be seen” – and this includes works by the next generation of aspiring playwrights.

Since 2018, the company has hosted a competition and showcase of plays by high school students. It is currently accepting submissions for its 2022 Student Playwright Festival.

The festival is open to high school seniors in the Greater Houston area, who are invited to submit previously unproduced one-act plays, up to 30 minutes in length. The deadline is February 11, 2022. Rules and application are available here.

Three to five plays will be selected to be produced by the festival on June 8, 2022 at the MATCH, with the winning playwrights in attendance as guests of honor.

Each winner will also receive a $500 scholarship and the experience of preparing their works for the stage – including mentorship by a Houston-based playwright and participation in the rehearsal process leading up to the festival.

A unique opportunity for area students, Dirt Dogs Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is the only one of its kind open to high school students across the city, based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple local theater organizations.

Other local efforts to engage teens indicate an active youth theater scene overall in Houston, with an emphasis on performance – including youth training programs offered by the Alley Theatre, Ensemble Theatre, Main Street Theater, Stages, and Theater Under The Stars. The University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance also produces an annual 10-Minute Play Festival that showcases new works by college playwrights in its B.F.A. program.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Trevor B. Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre Company, for the following interview to find out more about the impact of its Student Playwright Festival (SPF).

“The New World” by 2020 student playwright winner Jack A. Mowry, directed by Trevor B. Cone; (L-R: Todd Thigpen as Guard, Jeff Featherston as Walter Dunningham, Allen Dorris, Jr. as Jeff Drake) / photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Is there any story behind the festival? How and why did you start it?

Our younger daughter, Sydney, took a playwriting class at her high school in the spring of 2017. Their semester concluded with each of the students in the class producing their plays. The performances were done over a weekend and were mainly attended by friends and family.

We figured there were other high school students who were also playwrights that maybe didn’t have an opportunity to see their work go from the page to the stage but would really benefit from it. After some brainstorming with our artists in residence, Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie, the framework for the Student Playwright Festival was built and then launched in 2018. 

The first two festivals took place in June 2018 and 2019. The 2020 SPF was postponed due to COVID and was held in November in 2021.

How many student plays have you produced through the festival so far?  Are there any particular plays or experiences of mentoring past winners that stand out?

Each SPF has featured three plays, so in total we have produced nine. The mentors have each formed lasting relationships with one or more of the students they have mentored that have extended beyond the festival into their college and adult lives. We continue to hear stories of other projects their students have worked on because of the connections established by the SPF.

How is the scholarship funded?

So far, we have been very fortunate to have the scholarships underwritten by a mixture of individual, corporate, and foundation gifts. Our first SPF scholarships were funded by the Salners Family Foundation. Since then, we have been sponsored by Carrabba’s Original, and this year we received funding from the J. Flowers Health Institute.

Have any past winners gone on to study theater or playwrighting, or go on to produce more plays?

Yes, one of the students in the first festival studied at Brandeis and continues to write and design. Another is currently studying theatre at Emerson College and another is finishing his college career this spring at California Institute of the Arts.

How have you seen the festival impact students and the community?  In these complicated pandemic times, when many companies are struggling to present a full season amidst COVID, why is it important to you to continue to offer this opportunity to students?

The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. For the playwrights, the SPF is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft. As 2018 SPF winner Carter Prentiss told us, “Seeing my show go from the moments in my mind to the words on a page and finally to actions on stage was nothing short of amazing.”

For some, the SPF exposed them to how a play is produced and all that goes into it. Another 2018 SPF winner Addison Antonoff said, “Being able to help a show go from a draft to full production has given me the ability to work in different areas of theatre I didn’t have previous experience in because I was able to see not just the work of those areas, but how they fit together in a show.” For the mentors and Dirt Dogs, the SPF allows us to foster the talents of the next generation of theatre makers. 

Regarding the company in general, what would you like people to know about how the pandemic has impacted Dirt Dogs Theatre Company?

We were mid-way through Season 4 when COVID-19 reached the United States. Our production of The Dead Eye Boy completed its run on March 7, 2020. The city shut down the following week. We were unable to complete Season 4, and in Season 5 we produced a streaming production of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Originally produced by the playwright as a one-woman show with Ms. Smith performing over 30 roles, Dirt Dogs instead chose to cast 32 local actors, and we rehearsed and filmed them under strict socially distanced guidelines. The cinematic theatrical production was made available on demand during the month of November 2020 and again in February 2021.

We launched our Season 6 in October 2021 with a production of The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. In December, we continued our ULNEASHED series, which debuted in January 2020 with Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. Both shows were well attended, showing us that people are excited about the return of live theatre.

Rehearsals have begun for our restaging of A Steady Rain, which we originally produced as the first show of our premiere season in 2016. We are hopeful that the current omicron surge will subside enough for our audiences to come back to MATCH when we open on February 18.

As Houston theater veteran, do you know of any other local student playwriting festivals or similar opportunities?

We are not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals that are specifically targeted at high school students. This is one of the reasons we decided to start the SPF. With encouragement and guidance, we hope that kids who are interested in theatre, and specifically the creation of new plays, will follow through on that urge. These kids are the future of the American theatre. Hopefully, Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. can have a positive impact on them.

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