MADISON, Wisconsin - When Forward Theater Co. artistic director Jen Uphoff Gray imagined a statewide theater festival showcasing new plays and musicals, her vision sounded no more challenging than staging the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet in tandem fighter jets.

Undaunted, Gray kept reaching for the sky with her feet planted firmly on the ground — pitching her idea even after Covid took a toll on American theater that included the demise of Louisville’s 44-year-old Humana Festival of New American Plays and the prestigious San Diego Repertory Theatre, focused almost exclusively on new work.

This spring her seemingly impossible dream, World Premiere Wisconsin, launches an unprecedented four month season at fifty venues ranging from woodsy outdoor stages to 720 seat downtown playhouses.

All this is happening at a time when less than 100 of the 21,000 productions offered annually by America’s roughly 1,900 professional nonprofit theaters are world premieres. Only a handful of houses — such as San Francisco’s Magic Theater and Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose — are fully dedicated to new theater.

“New premieres are twice as much work and riskier than well established shows,” says Next Act’s recently retired producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini, who has staged a handful of brand new works at Milwaukee’s Next Act over the past 30 years.

Getting a new show right takes time — lots of time. Gray also knew no one had attempted to unite a diverse statewide coalition including Milwaukee Rep, Peninsula Players, Stage Q, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Third Avenue Playworks, La Follette High School’s Devised Theater, and First Act Children’s Theatre.

To wit, she was also determined to waive entry fees, not require themes or use judges. In addition, there were no submission deadlines. Producers were welcome to mount productions with full runs or staged readings and workshops with limited runs. The festival door would also be wide open for self-producing playwrights willing to rent a synagogue basement or warehouse anywhere between Green Bay and the Mississippi.

She initially raised $35,000 from her own Forward Theater Co. and its funders. Further backing came from other major theaters, the Ten Chimneys Foundation and the state department of tourism.

Gray pitched her fellow artistic directors with the same passion that persuaded an ambitious Milwaukee high school student to locally tour an abridged 45 minute Death of A Salesman in 1949. His name was Gene Wilder.

After decades of exporting star students — like Wilder, Mark Rylance, Rachel Brosnahan and Willem Dafoe — Wisconsin is presenting local talent dazzling some of the nation’s leading theatre critics.

The ultimate theatrical joint venture, WPW cross promotes prolific Lauren Gunderson’s Artemesia alongside local playwright John Van Dyke’s Bizarre Intrusive Thoughts — a show combining music, storytelling, shadow puppetry and lip-synching — at Pink Umbrella Theater Company.

Advance ticket holders include Jen Gray’s Madison neighbor, Governor Tony Evers who is “excited to explore new shows that will be a part of this groundbreaking festival putting Wisconsin in the international spotlight.”

Diverse shows featuring Actors Equity union cast include Next Act’s Bill Cain comedy God’s Spies, (opening April 27) on Shakespeare’s struggle to write King Lear during a plague. At Northern Sky, Fish Whisperer, (June 14) profiles a hustler seeking $10,000 to end Shewauga, Wisconsin’s angling drought.

Another fully-staged musical is Zuri’s Crown (April 27), a Black Arts MKE contemporary adaptation of Rapunzel set in the Black Milwaukee community.

“We tend to have a small loyal following and hope the festival will open doors to a wider audience,” says director Sheri Williams Pannell. “Our team is eager to discover what other theaters are doing in WPW after Covid isolation.”

Carthage College’s hometown eponymous theater piece Kenosha also explores a local angle. The show documents the summer 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests culminating with the killing of two demonstrators by 17-year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. Another major political work Joe Hill: A Song of Protest is playing at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Fond du Lac Theater (April 20).

Today, WPW festival producer Michael Cotey, who also heads ENOUGH!, a new play program for teens aimed at ending gun violence, is busy adding new shows: “Our festival is still open to any playwright who wants to present good work.”

That’s good news for Ann Morgan, program director of the National New Play Network, host of the New Play Exchange, an exhaustive database of full length work by over 10,000 playwrights:

At least half of these playwrights will never see their work on stage because they can’t self produce.

One WPW beneficiary is playwright Kim Ruyle. His comedy A Crooked French Affair replaced a postponed Our Town at the Fond du Lac Community Theatre. It’s the story of a first-time playwright who wins a writing competition after all competing submissions are mysteriously lost.

A key WPW hub is scenic Door County (pop. 27,000). One of four well-reviewed professional companies here is Northern Sky Theater, producer of 80 original musicals. Among this company’s hits are Guys On Ice (with Milwaukee Repertory Theater) and Lumberjacks in Love.

Artistic director Jeffrey Herbst says: “The collective energy of WPW is ideal coming out of Covid. Thanks to a cross promoted festival passport, smaller companies will have a chance to gain new audiences.”

Lauren Gunderson agrees. She and Gray are world-premiering her Artemisia (April 13), on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, the master Baroque painter who established herself with an international clientele — in spite of the limited opportunities available to women in 17th-century Italy.

“The U.S. has lost so many critical new play development programs in recent years and WPW gives me such hope for a vibrant future for new plays,” says Gunderson.

George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, points out that the state’s art enterprises currently employ over 83,000 residents and generate more than $5.7 billion in annual revenue.

“So many of our success stories are grassroots entrepreneurial nonprofits. Great ideas don’t start with a philanthropist handing over millions, but an innovator like Gray.”

Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic director Mark Clements, who formerly held the same position at Britain’s Darby Playhouse, has produced The Heart Sellers by Lloyd Suh (The Chinese Lady).

“This show is part of our new play development program that brings major world premieres to all three Rep auditoriums annually,” says Clements.

In Wisconsin’s southwestern Driftless Area, the Shake Rag Alley Ceneer for the Arts is kicking off a new play reading series on May 26. This Mineral Point company’s education director Christina Kubasta is excited to be opening with Marcia Jablonski’s About The Kids

In this play parents waiting for their children to show up on Christmas Eve, discover uncomfortable truths. Are the simplest solutions always the right ones? Will the holidays be the only thing ruined?

New play champion Ann Morgan loves the idea that nationally acclaimed classical repertory companies like Spring Green’s American Players Theater, have offered shows like the Lawrence Gavin’s The Barber and the Unknown Prince.

“What’s exciting is the collaboration between so many different kinds of fascinating companies with a unifying commitment to world premieres,” says Morgan. “Instead of focusing on a specific theme, demographic or writer they are open to anything that is good. The workshops are great because they encourage audiences to participate in the development process and learn how new work is created.”

While in Wisconsin be sure to visit Genesee Depot’s Ten Chimneys estate (May 14). Here, Broadway theatre legends Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt championed new work, welcoming Noel Coward and other well known playwrights to craft their scripts each summer.

At the WPW kickoff party here Gray cited one of her inspirations for the festival Steven Dietz (Bloomsday):

While we respectfully curate the work of the past, we must avidly initiate the work of the present. Why? Because the moment we are living in has not been written. And it will only ever be witnessed by us.

Will any of these WPW shows make it to Broadway houses like the Lunt Fontanne Theatre? After five Wisconsin world premieres, Milwaukee playwright Marie Kohler, recently back from an Off-Broadway run of her acclaimed play Boswell, thinks it could happen:

Wisconsin has everything an aspiring playwright needs to cultivate her craft — and go for it. We have strong directors, talented college theater students, and great actors who can project to a 1,100 seat outdoor theater amphitheatre without a mic.

And most important of all, dedicated audiences … that really want playwrights to succeed. The Midwestern spirit? Maybe. In any case it’s lovely — and I think it’s rare.

For more on World Premiere Wisconsin shows:

Calendar - World Premiere Wisconsin
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Roger Rapoport’s play Old Heart world premiered last spring in Detroi and is up May 20 and 21 at the Overbrook Theater in Muskegon. His true crime novel Patty Hearst: A Love Story will be out this fall from Lexographic Press. He has produced three award winning feature films in Wisconsin, Coming Up For Air, Pilot Error and Waterwalk.