- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) - What does it take to create a new theater festival? Michael Harding admits he’s still figuring that one out.

Harding wasn’t originally setting out to create a theater festival. The seeding for this festival began as an effort to workshop new plays with colleagues from around the country. Those efforts were, in turn, built upon past efforts to develop original works through “cyber theater companies” online.

Those early seeds are now sprouting as the Second Act New Works Festival with events on Feb. 16 and March 22 before the official week-long festival from April 18-23. Dixie State University in St. George - where Harding works as an assistant professor of theatre and as the department chairman for theatre and dance - will host the independent festival.

“We planted a seed; let’s see where it goes,” Harding says.

The basic idea is to create a forum where playwrights from across the country can have their works read and developed in St. George. The festival will then prepare those scripts for regional distribution as a functioning national literary agency.

Harding compares Second Act to the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project, with which he has been associated as both an actor and director for many years.

Harding has been an actor on the USF stage for 11 summer seasons since his debut as Duncan in the 1997 production of “Macbeth.”

You might recognize him as the name and face behind recent roles like Bardolph in the 2014 production of “Henry IV Part One” or as Sebastian in “The Tempest” and Juror No. 6 in “Twelve Angry Men,” both in 2013.

“I give a lot of credit to the Shakespeare Festival,” he says. “They’ve really shaped me as an actor.”

His experience with USF has helped him develop dozens of professional contacts throughout the United States and his role in USF’s New American Playwrights Project taught him the basics of Second Act’s primary purpose: workshopping new plays.

Harding emphasizes that this festival is not just about staged readings of plays. It’s about the development of new plays - new stories unfamiliar to theater audiences.

“I think it’s a new form for this area but one that will catch on,” he says.

While submissions to the festival are open to local playwrights, the festival’s scope is much larger.

Harding’s vision is for Second Act to become a national hub for the development of new works. This first official year of the festival will feature six playwrights from as far away as Illinois and Pennsylvania and as close as St. George.

“These are credible, credited theater people,” Harding says.

Second Act will produce each work with its own director and cast prior to the April festival. That has already happened with some and Second Act will tackle two more before the festival. These readings will include a chance for the playwrights to hear audience feedback to help them know what works and what might need to be changed.

“These playwrights are just anxious for this,” Harding says.

The playwrights then have a chance to incorporate that feedback as they revise their pieces prior to the weeklong festival in April when each of them will be presented again. Harding also hopes to fill a seventh night of the festival with local student works.

Creating a Second Act

The festival takes its name from Harding’s own transition from acting to teaching. Although he still acts at USF, he says his focus on teaching has resulted in losing touch with some of the trends in the theater world. The festival will enable him to not only stay in touch with those trends but also provide a way for his students to experience relevant new works.

Harding brings 24 years of experience as a professional regional theater actor and nine years of experience in academia to his new role as artistic director for Second Act.

He admits there’s a selfish bonus to creating the festival: One of his own plays, “Dancing in the Flames,” will be among the works developed at this year’s festival.

As the artistic director, Harding was handling nearly every aspect of the project himself until it became too big for him to organize alone. It turned out that one of his students, Mindi Kirk, needed some extra credits, so he developed an intern position for her.

Kirk says she handles everything from correspondence between the festival and the playwrights to creating posters for the productions - a challenge since she didn’t have any previous graphic design experience.

But that’s what building a new organization is all about. Those involved often take on multiple roles, many of which take them outside their normal comfort zones.

“It’s been an eye-opening experience for me,” says Kirk, a DSU senior from West Jordan.

Prior to her work with Second Act, she had focused primarily on the acting side of theater. Now she has gained experience with the logistical side, providing a valuable career path if acting doesn’t pan out.

So far, Harding and Kirk are the festival’s entire staff. However, he expects to need the help of five or six additional students in the near future to pull off what he has planned, including his three-year goal of becoming a functioning literacy agency for plays.

As an agency, Second Act would distribute the plays for regional theater productions across the country.

Harding believes that combining a new works festival with a literary agency is an original idea. He has not come across a similar organization in his quarter-century of professional theater work.

“I can’t wait to be overwhelmed,” Harding says of the festival’s future growth.

As far as the local theater scene, Second Act will not only provide the chance for Southern Utah playwrights to possibly develop their own works, the readings offer another company for local actors and directors to add to their resume.

It’s also a different concept from community theaters like Brigham’s Playhouse and St. George Musical Theater or even professional companies like USF and Tuacahn. The Space Between Theater Company has produced readings of new plays as well as full productions of established works. But Second Act’s focus is solely on the workshopping process - a script becoming a play.

Bruce Bennett, executive director for St. George Musical Theater, says he isn’t worried about competition from the Second Act New Works Festival. In fact, he’s excited about what it might bring to the local theater community.

“Anything that brings new works to the surface and puts it in the hands of talented actors and directors is great,” Bennett says.

Those interested in a sneak peak of the plays prior to the April festival can attend the initial readings for “The Process” by Sue Lange on Feb. 16 and “This Prison Where I Live” by Angela Iannone on March 22.

All of the productions, both the initial readings and the final festival readings, begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at DSU’s Eccles Fine Arts Center at the corner of 100 South and 700 East in St. George. There is no charge for admission.

The weeklong festival will include second readings of “The Process” on April 18, “The Prison Where I Live” on April 19, “Miss Bonnie Belle” by Carl Rich on April 20, “Shackled and The Tell-Tale Heart” by Brian Grob on April 21, “Dancing in the Flames” on April 22 and “Sea Fairies” by Kirt Shineman on April 23.

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Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com

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