INDIANA, Pa. -- Festival, they call it.
Not the festival, and certainly not a festival, but just Festival, as in, "we do it this way at Festival." It's a noun, sometimes an adjective and maybe even a verb, subsuming everything -- a life-form of its own.
The fuller name is KCACTF, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
However you name it, Festival is a beast: This year, its 44th, it gathered more than 1,100 college students, faculty and theater professionals on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania for five intense days of theater -- full productions, auditions, designing, playwriting, dramaturgy, tech work, a fringe festival, workshops and even review writing. Not to mention partying.
Brian Jones, a designer and chair of IUP's Department of Theater and Dance, calls it Festival World. He and the other KCACTF leaders worked for a year to set it up. "I like to think of this as part of the American national theater," he said, "an incubator for the profession."
It was the review writing that brought me to IUP. For the fourth or fifth time in the past couple of decades I'd been invited to be guest critic for the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy, connected to the O'Neill Critics Institute -- ITJA/OCI, for short.
That's just one of the smaller rings in this circus, and the gathering at IUP was itself just one ring of the eight-ring national festival. Region 2, into which we fall, includes all of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and D.C., plus southern New York state and northern Virginia.
In this area, some 34 colleges had entered 60 productions in the main competition, with those and 36 more colleges entering another 103 as associate productions -- including Robert Morris, Carnegie Mellon and Pitt-Greensburg.
Of those 60 shows, eight were chosen to be staged at IUP, with all the tech work that entails. These included plays classic: Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (Towson University), Strindberg's "A Dream Play" (Bridgewater College) and Sophocles' "Re-Membering Antigone" (Long Island University); modern: David Auburn's "Proof" (Bloomsburg University), William Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (West Chester University) and Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man" (Fairmont State University); and new: Molly Hagen's "Swing of the Sea" (Arcadia University) and Tammy Ryan's "Lindsey's Oyster" (IUP).
In previous years, a few productions from regional festivals would be invited to the Kennedy Center for the spring finals. This year, budgets have been slashed, so the productions will not travel to the Kennedy Center, but awards still will be presented there, and the regional winners in all the other categories (acting, playwriting, designing, etc.) will go there as well.
It goes without saying that IUP was still on vacation to allow this massive invasion from Thursday to Monday. The eight productions weren't even the largest ring of the circus -- that was the Irene Ryan acting competition, which brought some 210 competitors (many also with a scene partner), who were whittled down first to 32 semifinalists, then to 16 finalists and finally to two winners.
Everywhere I ran into Pittsburghers, such as John Gresh, directing a student play in the playwriting program; Ken Bolden, accompanying Pitt students in the Ryan competition; CMU's Dick Block, a playwriting respondent; and Mark Thompson, a Ryan judge. Michael Hood, dean of the IUP College of Fine Arts, is familiar from Pittsburgh acting appearances.
But Pittsburgh's main contribution was Shadyside playwright Tammy Ryan and IUP's production of her new play, which is still under development. With insight and wit, "Lindsey's Oyster" tells the story of a 16-year-old juggling friends, sex, parents, tattoos, texting and, ultimately, her own identity. Director Jason Chimonides featured an inventive set by Mr. Jones, a great upward curve of white, suggesting a cresting wave or a giant oyster shell, within which, eventually, Lindsey finds the pearl that is herself.
Ms. Ryan's script makes telling use of Lindsey's texting and Facebook posting, expressing her anxiety as she learns she's pregnant and confronts the actual nature of the encounter with her boyfriend. Her friends and parents are variously successful in support, while a tattoo artist turns out to be her unlikely counselor and shaman.
Meanwhile, my coven of 11 college critics, generously supported by coordinator Ralph Leary of Clarion University, was trying to make sense of it all, debating the plays and sharing reviews in six sessions of two to three hours each. In making awards the final day to Gabriela Fleury (James Madison University) and alternate Brett Billings (Lafayette College), I claimed no one at Festival had worked harder. Ms. Fleury now goes on to Washington and possibly to the critics' institute this summer at Connecticut's O'Neill Theater Center.
Everyone worked hard. And given how hard some of the 1,100 partied, it's a wonder the critics showed up promptly at 9:30 each morning, fresh review in hand.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.