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GLT Datebook: New Season Looms For Heartland Theatre

Rhys Lovell and Gail Dobbins
Laura Kennedy
Heartland Theatre Artistic Director Rhys Lovell, left, and Managing Director Gail Dobbins hope the new season fills the seats.

Heartland Theatre has scheduled a new season that includes opportunities to catch the works of rising playwrights, plus a chance to see a classic masterpiece. Oh, and there's cake, too.  

The 2019–20 season kicks off June 6 with The Ten-Minute Play Festival. Hundreds of short plays were submitted to Heartland’s annual festival and just eight never-before produced scripts have been chosen for production. Each year, the festival has a theme, and for 2019 it’s The Library.  

The Ten-Minute Play Festival runs through June 29. But that’s not the end of the festivals at Heartland.  Artistic Director Rhys Lovell said the 2019 Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland Festival will run July 11–14. The festival features three brand new one-act plays selected from submission from nine Midwest states. The plays will be presented as staged readings, and a nationally-known playwright will be a part of the Festival, conducting a workshop with the winning playwrights.  

“The focus is on the script,” said Gail Dobbins, Heartland Theatre’s managing director. “The goal is not only to introduce one-act plays to the area, but to get people to trust a new play.” 

And that’s not always easy. 

“The plays don’t have a track record,” said Lovell. “Audiences will pay money to see something that someone else has seen and reported back to them about it. But for something that is just emerging, there’s a fear there. ‘What are they going to talk about in the play? Will this be directed at me? Is it going to get me riled up? Maybe I don’t want to be riled up.’ Well, then don’t come to the theater because that’s what theater does,” he added with a laugh. 

Chicago playwright Brett Neveu will be in attendance at the restival, lending his expertise to the playwrights in a master class, plus he will lecture to the community. 

“It’s a growing experience,” said Dobbins. “For the playwrights to see a real audience see their plays, they love to see their reactions, they can make changes to their scripts. And a couple of the winners over the years have gone on to be written into a full-length play.” 

The new Heartland Theater season also includes “The Electric Baby,” which Lovell described as magical realism. That opens Sept. 12 and runs through the 28th. At the end of October, the funny and heartwarming “Outside Mullingar” will be staged. Then in December it’s The Play’s the Thing, which is a stage reading of a new work. 

“This really is just focusing on the text,” explained Lovell. “There is no blocking. It’s actors, seated on stools, reading from the scripts. It’s a chance for the playwright to be in residence with us for that short period of time that we’re working it, so that he or she can hear how the words sound, even suggest changes.” 

This foray into reader’s theater runs Dec. 8 and 9. 

It’s not just new plays at Heartland. Each season holds a classic and coming up Feb. 6–22, it’s Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”    

Dobbins admitted to feeling wary when she saw the classic tragicomedy on the schedule. Then came the announcement party for the season.

“Rhys gets actors to do scenes from the shows so the audience can see a little bit more about them. John Fisher played one of the roles in “Godot” and Rhys did the other. And I gotta tell you, I wasn’t excited about “Godot” in our season. Then I saw this scene! These two guys were all over the room – they were hilarious! It was like vaudeville. It was wonderful!” 

“It’s very vaudevillian,” said Lovell. “That’s something a lot of people don’t realize about the show, if they’ve not seen it.  Or maybe they did and they saw a production that just focused on all of the existential angst. But it’s full of humor.” 

Heartland Theatre rounds out its 2019-2020 season with “The Cake,” opening April 2. 

“The play deals with gay marriage,” Lovell explained. “You have this main character, Della, who is a delight, she’s a baker. And she has very conservative values. Into the picture comes an old friend who asks Della to make her wedding cake.” 

A wedding cake for a lesbian wedding. 

“And that sets into motion how Della deals with this information. It’s a very honest and balanced look at the left and the right and how much we can learn from one another’s perspectives.  There’s value in both.” 

Tickets for the new Heartland Theatre season go on sale this month.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.