Helena hosts Last Chance New Play Fest

Fourth annual festival, Nov. 3-12, celebrates works by Montana playwrights

On Stage

Helena’s Last Chance New Play Fest, now in its fourth year, will run Nov. 3-12. This grassroots theatre event celebrates the works of local and regional playwrights.

Last Chance New Play Fest
Tim Holmes and Garret Garrels in last year’s “Random Gifts of Art.”Photo © Ross Peter Nelson

This year’s festival opens Friday with “The AI Project,” a suite of 10-minute plays that explores the potential conflicts between humans and artificial intelligence, posing questions about what makes us human. The eight plays in the collection examine with humor, satire, and serious reflection our infatuation with technology and its ability to positively determine or negatively undermine our destiny.

In addition to the opening performance, 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at 130 Neill Avenue in downtown Helena, “The AI Project” will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturdays, Nov. 4 and 11, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9 (followed by an audience talk-back), and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12.

This year’s call for submissions brought in writers from as far away as Melstone and Kalispell. Additional projects in the fest include “Boxed,” written and performed by Steven Palmer, and a one-act play, “Pretty Little White Heads,” written and directed by Rebecca Ryland.

Tickets for individual performances are $10, and available at the door; festival passes are $20 and admit holders to any performance (available in advance at the Fire Tower Coffee House).

Steven Palmer and Rebecca Ryland serve as the producers of this year’s event, along with Ross Peter Nelson, who will return from serving as playwright-in-residence in Can Serrat, Spain, just days before his new play, “Housemaster 3000,” appears as part of “The AI Project.”

The Last Chance New Play Fest is sponsored in part by a grant from the Montana Arts Council. Experimental Theatre Co-op received a Strategic Investment Grant to help build the audience for new works and Montana writers.

Plays “ripped from today’s headlines”

Nelson was instrumental in coordinating “The AI Project” with another organization in Helena: Merlin CCC. The organization, founded by Marisa Diaz-Wayan, has been running a series of symposia on the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. The third in the series will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Myrna Loy. Nelson, who has a background both in computer science and theatre, was invited to serve as one of the panelists in the symposium.

Merlin’s program begins with a showing of “Marjorie Prime,” an AI-themed motion picture. No Fest performances will be held that evening so that everyone interested can attend the symposium.

Last Chance New Play Fest
Cody Root and Haley Nelson in last year’s “Off With Y’er Head.”Photo © Ross Peter Nelson

Nelson was offered a residency at Can Serrat, an artists’ colony just outside Barcelona to begin work on a new play about Salvador Dalí, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Luis Buñuel. The residency comes on the heels of last year’s New Orleans premiere of his play “Becoming Number Six,” a dark comedy about shadowy government agencies and internet surveillance.

“It’s one of those ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories,” he says, noting that in the past few months he’s forwarded news items to Harold Gervais, the play’s director, about how their work together predicted techniques currently in use by the NSA and CIA. Last summer, he was selected for the Spokane Playwrights’ Festival and came home with an Audience Favorite Award for “Zoloft Tango.”

2017 will mark Ross’s third year with the Last Chance New Play Fest, which previously produced his one-act “In the End,” and “Colter’s Hell,” his full-length ecological fable based on the life of mountain man John Colter.

“Boxed” reprised from inaugural festival

Steve Palmer performed his one man show, “Boxed,” in September at the United Solo Fest on Theatre Row in New York City. The United Solo Fest, the biggest of its kind in the world, honors works performed by a single person.

Palmer described the United Solo Festival as “an idea from the Big City that takes place in the Big City.” But, as Palmer pointed out, it doesn’t limit itself to celebrating voices or ideas from the Big City alone.

“It’s open to all voices and even those small voices that might arise from a place like Montana. How could I refuse?” said Palmer who joined 120 other solo artists from 24 states, 23 countries and six continents who performed during the two-month festival.

“Boxed” premiered in Helena in 2015 at the inaugural Last Chance New Play Fest and has the unusual distinction of originating in Montana and then touring to New York, rather than the reverse. It’s reprisal this year was at the request of the festival’s executive director, Rebecca Ryland, in recognition of the quality of the script but also in view of its acceptance into the United Solo Fest.

Palmer has been combining his long-time interest in playwriting and years of acting experience into a series of solo works. The Last Chance New Play Fest has provided an excellent venue for this exploration.

Palmer presented two solo performances at the second New Play Fest: “NUMB3RS” by local playwright Robert Bayuk and “Cat and Smoke,” also written by Palmer. For the third festival, Palmer presented “Sheep Stories,” based on memories of his teenage years spent on a sheep ranch in the Helena Valley in the 1960s.

Palmer joins Ed Mannix and Ryland as the directing team for the eight plays in “The AI Project.” Mannix has roots in New York City, moving to Helena just four years ago after a long and varied career. He originally studied stage directing at Temple University in Philadelphia and is an avid participant in arts and culture, presenting house concerts featuring up and coming singer/songwriters and the occasional, supportive rock star – and producing a variety of programs and award presentations.

Rebecca Ryland directs two new plays

Ryland will direct her new 10-minute play “HAVOCC” as well as her one-act play, “Pretty Little White Heads,” which premiered in June at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, Wyo. The play is set at a picnic where four young women have gathered to witness a fascist event celebrating their families’ tradition; it explores the hypocrisy of a world where people are willing to fight to take away the rights of others while failing to see past their own noses.

Ryland, who holds an MFA in acting/directing, worked professionally in the theatre arts for over 20 years before moving to Montana in 2010. Although she has Equity acting credits, her real love is writing and directing. Her works are performed annually throughout the U.S. and Canada and three of her plays have been performed in New York City.

About the Last Chance Play Fest

Ryland first came up with the idea of a new play festival in Helena after directing two plays in the Grandstreet Studio. The Studio was the perfect venue for introducing audiences to lesser-known works in an intimate setting and she wanted to use the same concept to celebrate the works of Montana playwrights.

During a trip to Hollywood with Helena’s grande dame of theatre, Pam Ponich, for a production of Ryland’s full-length play, “Improvisation,” Ryland made a commitment to starting the festival. Upon return, she contacted several local playwrights, actors and directors and planning began for the first festival in the spring of 2015.

Actors include six adults from the Helena area, three teens from the Grandstreet Theatre Education program, and a Carroll College student. For additional information and performance schedules, visit www.experimentaltheatrecoop.org. Follow the Fest on Facebook at www.facebook.com/helenaFringe.

The Experimental Theatre Cooperative is the “experimental arm” of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the dramatic arts and supporting development and performance opportunities for theatre artists. For more information, visit www.ExperimentalTheatreCoop.org.