Winning 1-act plays, playwrights coming to Valhalla

Theater is more dramatic when it involves competition.

Three one-act plays chosen from more than 100 will be presented Oct. 22-23 at the Valhalla Boathouse Theatre. The playwrights will answer questions from audience members following the performances.

Held each autumn at the conclusion of Valhalla Tahoe summer activities at the Tallac Historic Site, WordWave 2021 features a first-time winner Nicole DeSalle is from Iowa City, Peter McDonough, whose 2016 winning play was held the following year at Lake Tahoe Community College, live in Chicago, and Susan Boulanger, who was the head of the Theater Department LTCC for eight years, has directed three Word Wave plays and will now direct one for the first time that she wrote. Boulanger recently moved to Los Angeles County.

The playwrights answered via email questions from Tahoe Onstage in advance of the two-night run at the South Lake Tahoe venue, which is in its 25th year.

How many times have you competed in WordWave? It must be quite an honor have your work chosen over more than 100 others.

Nicole DeSalle: This is my first time competing in WordWave. Yes, it is an honor. I’m fairly new to playwriting, so it was very encouraging. And the Word Wave team has been wonderful to work with.

Susan Boulanger: This is the first time I have submitted a play to WordWave. I was involved in the creation of Word Wave and directed winning entries the first three years when I was still in Tahoe. I was excited and honored when I found out my play was selected as one of the winners, especially since the competition has grown so much over the years.

Peter McDonough: I competed in WordWave one other time in 2016, and I was fortunate enough to have my play “Joint Chiefs” selected as one of the winners. It is an honor and humbling to be chosen once, but twice is fantastic. With more than 100 entries, this festival is competitive. It’s rewarding to know that my work resonated with the judges.

What are the elements of a good play?

Nicole DeSalle: I always hope to write something that makes an audience laugh or cry, preferably both. I think the best plays ask questions about the human condition and explore those questions in interesting, inventive ways. 

Susan Boulanger: We could have an entire Aristotelian discussion about this, but that would take too long! One of the things I look for in a good play is well-written, compelling, and multi-faceted characters that draw you in, and, as a director or an actor, provide a lot of layers to delve into.

Peter McDonough: I believe a good play starts with a good story. The playwright takes us on a journey. The journey should engage the audience and make them anxious to know what will happen next. Structurally, it should have a clear plot, a strong conflict, well-developed characters, and a setting that enhances those elements.

Where do you draw your ideas?

Nicole DeSalle: I’m usually provoked by the places I visit. Lately I’ve been interested in pilgrimages — how people journey to a specific place looking for answers. I just finished a play that takes place in Stanley Park in Vancouver, where each year more than a hundred Great Blue Herons come to mate and rear their young. I’m interested in how birdwatchers come to this place each year and what they learn about themselves from witnessing this phenomenon of nature. I’m also working on a play that takes place in Graceland. I’m interested in how being at Elvis’s home helps characters wrestle with whatever they might be dealing with in their own lives. “Big Top Love” is the story of a town that experienced a disappointment more than a hundred years ago. It was inspired by the many small towns near where I live where people are trying to find their way in an ever-changing economy.

Susan Boulanger: I based this play on a desire I have had for a number of years to direct Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” This play began as a shorter play that I wrote and directed for a virtual presentation at a theatre this past fall. I wanted to do something that made sense to present on Zoom, that reflected the times we are in, and I wanted to do something that was funny. For my Word Wave submission, I worked on developing the play and the characters, expanding it and reworking it for the live stage. The actresses in the play are good friends of mine and I’ve directed them in a number of shows, so I know them well.  I based the characters in the play on them, which is not to say that they are like those characters in real life, but I envisioned them as I developed the characters.

Peter McDonough: Some ideas come from current events, primarily when those events draw an emotional response. “The Process” is an example of this. “Joint Chiefs” was inspired by a piece of music. Specifically, a line in a John Mellencamp, “You can’t tell your best buddy that you love him.” “The Boondawgle Estate” started with a desire to write something funny that involved family and strong, mature female roles. The actual story came to me after that.

We are living in a unique time. Years from now will this era be considered a seminal era for the arts?

Nicole DeSalle: I think play writing has often been tied to geographic location. Many playwrights fear their work won’t ever be produced unless they live in New York or other cities well-known for theater. I think the pandemic in general taught us that art can and does move forward, and that it’s not limited to a particular location. I’m writing plays today because of the pandemic. I had always longed to take classes in New York or Chicago. During quarantine, I had the opportunity to take classes online with the Chicago Dramatists and the Barrow Group in New York City. My work grew in new ways from that experience. It has been fascinating to see how theater could move on without the actual theater. I don’t think there’s anything more magical than sitting in an actual theater. But I’m also grateful that we now have work like “The Rogues’ Gallery,” a monologue play written by John Patrick Shanley, which he created so that it could be rehearsed and performed within the constraints of social distancing. The pandemic also drew attention to existing resources for art. I think the greatest collection of play writing on Earth can be harnessed right through your earbuds from a podcast called “Playing on Air.” This program existed before the pandemic, but it gained increased attention when live theater was put on pause. 

Susan Boulanger: I absolutely think so. Theatre is a reflection of the society in which it is created. When you look back on theatre history, new movements and new developments are tied into what was happening in society at the time. A lot has happened during this pandemic, and not just with the virus. So many things on a societal and human level have transpired in a way not really seen before in this country. I think this has had a huge impact on people in the performing and visual arts. We are already seeing some of that work coming forward, and I believe there is a lot more to follow.

Peter McDonough: Yes, I think this unique time is influencing and will continue to influence the arts for some time to come. It will be considered exceptionally impactful. We are still in the midst of so much upheaval that it will take time to process all of it enough to truly express impressions through the arts.

Is it unusual to field questions from the audience after your play is performed? 

Nicole DeSalle: When I attend new plays, there is usually one performance that has a Q & A, and that’s always the one I try to attend. I always learn so much when I hear playwrights talk about their work. As for myself, I’ve done two other Q & A’s after performances, and I love it. Play writing is special because after you write the words “End of Play” the story takes on a life of its own. It touches the lives of the actors, the director, the crew, and, of course, the audience. Participating in a Q & A is a manifestation of that reach, and it usually reminds me why I started writing plays in the first place. 

Susan Boulanger: Talkbacks are fairly common in regional theatres. As a director, I have included them after a performance of some of my shows. When I was in Tahoe, I included talkbacks with “The Laramie Project,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Still Life With Iris.” For the last two, it was so great to get questions from the kids in the audience! I have also participated in them as a director with Word Wave, but it’s going to be really interesting to participate this time as a playwright!

Peter McDonough: Post-performance talkbacks with the playwrights is pretty common at festivals and competitions. I think it’s a great way to did a little deeper into what an audience has just experienced. My experience with this has always been positive.

-Tim Parsons

  • WordWave at Valhalla One-Act Play Winners Performances 2021
  • When: Friday, Saturday, Oct. 22-23
  • Where: Valhalla Boathouse Theater, South Lake Tahoe
  • Tickets: LINK
  • Note: Audience members must wear masks
  • Susan Boulanger is an award-winning director, actor, producer, and educator from Los Angeles. Her “Out, Damn COVID Audition” one-act play finds Gayle, a local actor who has reached her breaking point, coaching the over-zealous Darcie for a Shakespeare audition that will definitely be…unforgettable. A silly comedy sure to delight. 
  • “Big Top Love” written by Nicole DeSalle explores the motivations behind our dreams through the experiences of Travis and Lydia who meet at a Chicago cafe and learn they both are seeking thrills they hope will bring joy to their lives. DeSalle’s short and one-act plays have been performed at the 2018 Pittsburgh New Works Festival, the 2021 Central Pennsylvania Theatre and Dance Festival, and the 2021 New Play Development Workshop as part of theAmerican Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Conference.
     
  • Peter McDonough’s dramedy, Joint Chiefs, won the playwriting competition in 2016, and received its premiere production the following year at Lake Tahoe Community College’s Duke Theatre. This year’s entry “The Process” finds first-grade teacher Sarah Chapman reliving the events of a specific day with the help of a counselor. The women painstakingly unearth the truth, forcing the audience to confront a chilling threat from which no one is immune. 

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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