This year marks the 19th annual Louise Heck-Rabi Playwriting Festival, a staple of the Studio Theatre. Each year, six or seven semi-finalists are chosen out of numerous play submissions. The plays are given a table-read to an open audience, workshopped and critiqued, and three are chosen to be fully produced in the Studio Theatre! Each play is written, directed, performed, and designed by student artists, and each playwright is awarded the Louise Heck-Rabi Endowed Scholarship in Dramatic Writing from the Wayne State English Department.
But how did this all get started?
Back in 1976, Louise Heck-Rabi graduated from Wayne State with a PhD in English. Louise was an active member of the Poetry Society of Michigan, and the founder of Downriver Poets and Playwrights. An accomplished playwright herself, her works include Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception and Rock the World, a one-act comedy which was performed Off-Off-Broadway in 1973. Louise stayed close to Wayne, however, and began working on-campus as a librarian and assistant professor. In 2000, the turn of the century, Louise created this playwriting scholarship and festival in hopes that young Detroit playwrights would carry on her passion for original productions.
This year’s selected plays all follow the theme of crossroads, and significant moments of choice and decisions. Woodhull by Sarah Summerwell, MFA in Acting, is a dark comedy set in Brooklyn, in which two siblings struggle with consequences stemming from mental illness and addiction. An unexpected visit from a mutual friend brings news that forces the family to question their faith in an individual’s ability to change. Unethical, by Joe Gaskill, BA in Theatre, is a thought-provoking drama inspired by real events. The play takes a spotlight to one man’s experiments and fascination with disgust in others. Ethical duties to others, sociopathic tendencies and confrontations between test subject and experimenter are explored throughout. Pettycoats, by Matthew Smith, MFA in Acting, is a lighter affair, a comedy loosly based on a 1792 newspaper article titled “The Petticoat Duelists”. The (likely fabricated) article tells the story of two women becoming involved in a swordfight with one another. Inspired by this and lamenting the incredible rarity of sword-fighting women in plays, Smith wrote this quippy, snappy, and delightfully posh play.
This incredible opportunity for students has been a successful event for almost 20 years now. It’s a fulfilling experience not only for students to showcase their work, but also for fellow performers and faculty members to witness the talent and hard work that beams from these individuals. The festival encourages students to dream big. One of the festival’s very first winners back in 2001, Fred Shahadi, is now an award-winning playwright and television writer living in Los Angeles. He’s best known for his position as head writer for Recipe Rehab on CBS. This experience has that ability to guide students down that pathway, by teaching them how to conduct their own work, and ultimately making it come to life.