In his 10 years as producing director of the American College Theatre Festival (which opens in a week), David Young has seen roughly 30 plays a year at colleges all over the country. "Even in the professional theater they aren't all good," he says diplomatically. "And you never know when you'll see something wonderful."
Young doesn't see the plays until they've made it to the finals, so most have attained a certain level of competence. He recalls a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at a northwestern university several years ago. "I thought, 'Oh no, not some 22-year-old playing Blanche,' and out came this child and she was absolutely brilliant, in the context of a school production. She got a standing ovation."
This year 472 productions were entered into the competition, winnowed down by judges from the American Theatre Association to 60 finalists. The six winners were selected by a panel of four: playwright N. Richard Nash, Judith Williams of the University of Vermont, Roger Graham Small from the Shenandoah Valley Playwrights' retreat, and Tom Evans from Hanover College in Indiana. Hanover College is one of only two schools in the country that has made it to the festival four times. The other is also in Indiana, the University of Indiana at Evansville.
There are fewer finalists this year -- six -- because two of the shows are being brought in from California and the expense precluded additional schools. Two are from Virginia universities: "How I Got That Story" (Virginia Tech) and "Hiawatha" (University of Richmond). Young says these geographical clusters are coincidental, not something in the water that produces good theater. For some reason local schools have not shown any interest in competing, perhaps because "they take us for granted," Young surmises.
Encouraging new playwrights is a major priority of the festival, and two plays are being showcased next week. "Excursion Fare" is by Dennis Smith of the University of Oregon, and "Bruinhaha" is a musical by students at UCLA. One of the more successful playwrights to have come out of the festival is Jim Leonard, whose "The Diviners" was subsequently staged at New Playwrights' and later in New York. Leonard is now working on a screenplay for director Robert Altman. "A few years ago he was starving in an attic over Tom Evans' garage in Hanover," Young says, "and now he's making more money than I do."
Young was an actor for 10 years before turning to teaching and directing. He recently decided he was "getting a little stale," so he played a part in "Lady From the Sea" at the Source. "I was nervous as the devil," he says. But, he adds, it is important for a teacher and director to remember what it's like to face an audience, and although he thought his work at the Source was less than great, he has joined the Poet and Peasant Theatre, a group that presents showcases for local actors. "I don't want to stay away so long again," he says. "It's too hard to go back."