Something Sad, Something Funny, Something In Between
Several years ago, after working for decades in the financial industry, Theresa Fogel joined an acting troupe. While performing with the Ivoryton Players, she met Laura Thoma, who had started her working career as a dancer.
“We hit it off right away,” says Fogel.
They found lots of common ground.
As Thoma puts it, “We were both newbies. And it was nice to meet someone else who was, too. And we’re not spring chickens.”
And, probably most important, they were both aspiring playwrights who had joined the acting troupe in part to see what it was like to be an actor.
“It was nice to meet someone else going along the same journey,” says Thoma. “So we started having coffee together. And we’d talk about everything.”
From those conversations, and years of work on their own plays, and years of working and talking with other Connecticut playwrights, the Connecticut Playwrights New Play Festival was born. It will run at Drama Works Theatre, 323 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook on Friday, Nov. 19 and 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 20 at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Featuring the work of local playwrights—Thoma, Fogel, and Steven Otfinoski—it’s proving to be a popular offering and tickets are going fast. The festival originally was going to be two shows, but a third was added when tickets started to sell quickly.
Both Fogel, from Old Saybrook, and Thoma, from Guilford, say they hope the success of the run will encourage Drama Works to consider staging the festival again in coming years. And they are excited about this year’s performances coming up.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been able to sit in the dark together and believe,” says Thoma. “I think it’s doing well because we’re offering you everything. A shorts festival gives you a taste of everything.”
A Deep Pool of Talent
Fogel’s plays in the festival include Boxes, where two sisters discover family secrets while cleaning out their mother’s attic; Hags, wherein three mature ladies in an independent living facility plot on how to become relevant to their family; and Synopsis of Speed Dating, where a man walks into a speed dating event, finds a woman, and proceeds to take charge.
Otfinoski, of Stratford, is a teacher, an author of more than 100 books, and a playwright who has written more than 60 plays who has had his plays produced in New England and internationally. His plays at the festival include Table Talk, featuring free-spirited Mattie and uptight Jenny, who are at loggerheads until they discover what they have in common; and First Snowfall, about a loving couple that isn’t exactly what they first seem to be.
Thoma’s offerings include Heartache Tonight, where a confrontation between Patrick and Melinda veers toward the possibility of a powerful connection; Writer’s Block features Sera, who is wrestling with her moody and uncooperative muse; and Yours in Words, where an aspiring writer bumps into her idol in a chance meeting that tests her determination and propels her into action.
The plays will feature a cast of eight, with some actors appearing in multiple plays. Several actors are from the shoreline area, including Cristal DePietro of Madison, Karen Evans from Ivoryton, Maureen Gallagher of Madison, Lenore Grunko of Deep River, and Elise Murphy Mulligan of Ivoryton. Directors include Liz Rosenthal of Old Saybrook, Pat Souney of Old Saybrook, and Robert Watts of North Haven. Barbara Nichols of Old Saybrook will be a stage manager, and Ali Vicino Old Saybrook will be an assistant stage manager.
Fogel says she is thrilled to be able to draw upon such a deep pool of talent here along the shoreline.
“I just really want to thank Ed [Wilhelms, the director of Drama Works] for giving us this opportunity and supporting local playwrights. He’s very gracious and it very much comes from a love of theater for him. He wants to give people a reason not to get on the train to New York. They have choices here.”
An Ideal Venue
Both Fogel and Thoma say Drama Works as a venue is particularly well suited to these short plays.
“I think the intimacy really creates an atmosphere of bringing the audience in,” says Thoma.
The goal is to create a flow to the evening, a series of plays that will take the audience on an emotional journey.
“Something sad. Something funny. Maybe something in between. The audience gets a really full evening, if you may,” she adds.
Performing at Drama Works is rewarding for the actors as well, she says.
“It can be fun for the actors,” she says. “When you are that close to the audience, you get to feed off of their reactions.”
The stage and settings will be minimal. There might be a table and three chairs in some plays, nothing more.
“That puts a lot more pressure on the performance and writing,” says Fogel.
Thoma agrees: “There’s nothing to hide behind. It really helps you focus in on the work.”
Short plays of the type being presented are usually about 10 to 15 minutes each, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. While they are much shorter than a typical play, they are not necessarily easier to write, Thoma says.
“They are tricky to write. Terri is a master,” she says, referring to Fogel.
The catch, Thoma says, is to write something more complex than a sketch.
“It’s so easy to write a sketch...to get the emotional arc of a character in 12 minutes, that’s a lot of work,” she says.
‘Something I Was Passionate About’
Thoma has been a writer for as long as she could remember, but her early artistic career was focused on storytelling through dance. Her work then expanded into musical theater. Her biography includes a stint touring nationally as Cheesasaurus Rex, a dancing dinosaur for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. She’s also taught both dance and musical theater, and has performed in regional theater productions as well.
After a knee injury ended her dance career, she worked for a while as a photographer and mixed media artist. She then began writing and a one-act play she developed, Magpie, was a semi-finalist in a playwriting competition, and then was developed into a full-length play that has been published and that will be performed at Drama Works in 2022.
Fogel took a roundabout path to becoming a playwright as well.
“I spent 35 years in finance,” she says. “But even when I was working in finance, I was always writing. Short stories. Articles for local newspapers. I raised my kids in Wilton, Connecticut, and once my youngest graduated from college, I decided I wanted to do something I was passionate about. I wrote a play and gravitated from there.”
As for their future plans, or whether there will be a second Connecticut Playwrights Festival, Thomas says it’s too early to say.
“We are so busy with our current production, we can’t see too far beyond that,” she says. “We have chatted about different directions we would like to go and when the dust settles from our show, we hope to have a chat with Ed, and brainstorm about opportunities in the future.”
She says if other shoreline playwrights want to get in touch with them as they have those conversations, they are welcome to contact her at email@example.com.