Cleveland State Plays Host to the Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival
At a panel discussion of Mac Wellman’s work, Convergence-Continuum’s artistic director Clyde Simon probably put it best when he pointed to that old prophetic irony concerning Wellman; a playwright of near-worldwide artistic acclaim, being more than somewhat unknown here in his hometown of Cleveland. Like many CSU students and Clevelanders in general, I too had very little knowledge Wellman’s work, but as a student of playwriting I now consider myself to have been in the right place at the right time this past weekend concerning the homecoming of the man to his native city. I was able to be in attendance for a good variety of the events, many of which were strategically showcased in-order to demonstrate the creative depths and versatility in Wellman’s writing. A significant whose-who of playwrights, performers, and local industry professionals were on hand to welcome back Mac, and celebrate his accomplishments as a playwright as well as his legacy as a teacher and mentor.
The festival officially opened Thursday morning in The Michael Schwartz Library, with “Damnable Artifacts: Production Memorabilia from the Plays of Mac Wellman.” This was a collection curated by David Todd of Playwrights Local featuring artifacts such as posters, props, T-shirts, and even vintage reviews cataloging Wellman’s career. Likewise Thursday morning, grad-students and local playwrights including Cleveland State’s own Katie Wallace and Rob Daniels were able to take part in an invitation-only master-class workshop taught by Wellman himself! Katie and Rob both had interesting takeaways on the experience as well as some unique stories that reflected Mac’s intellectual yet down-to-earth personality as an instructor. The first performance of the festival was a staged reading of Wellman’s Cleveland (1986), which was presented by CSU’s department of Theatre and Dance, and directed by Allan Byrne.
On Friday afternoon I was privileged to be a part of a Q&A salon session with Mr. Wellman. This turned out to be a bit more of a nerve-racking experience than some of us underclassmen in attendance had anticipated, primarily due to the intimate setting and close proximity to the master playwright. The fact that we were being encouraged to ask him questions didn’t help with the anxiety either, but I was able to get one out. I ended up asking him, since he is a native of Cleveland “The Rock-and-Roll City,” what kind of musical influences (if any) he might have had? Turns out that Mac was never really a fan of the Rock and Roll, and specifically didn’t care for Elvis or the Beatles! He did however grace us with an anecdote concerning old sweetheart dances, and he acknowledged music’s place in theatre as well as in his own work. Wellman primarily enjoys classical music and talked briefly about his experiences working with composers.
Friday night was chuck-full of events kicking-off with a brilliant performance of The Sandalwood Box (1996) presented by Baldwin Wallace Universities Department of Theatre and Dance. This was a 15-minute ensemble piece that truly showcased the avant-garde side of Wellman’s writing as well as the extraordinary talents of BW’s performers. Les Hunter, who directed the piece, spoke about the extensive rehearsal time required for just those 15-minutes of performance given the complexity of the material pertaining to movements and vocal exercises dealing with the control of breath and etcetera. Shaun Dillon, who played as one of the chorus characters, told me they had to practice for a solid month in order to get it right. Next was Bitter Bierce (2003) presented by Playwrights Local, directed by Christopher Johnston, and starring Brian Pedaci as Ambrose Bierce. This one-man show/period-piece reached back to the Civil War era, with a humorous literary character recanting tales that reflect Wellman’s unique take on that part of history. Finally, The Manhattan Project – Cleveland Lab presented The Good, the Bad and Mac: Local Playwrights Do Mac Wellman’s Writing Prompt, where four local playwrights that also happened to be CSU students, Nakanaela Bell, Kevin Latimer, Angelo Maneage, and Amanda VanAllen, each debuted an original 10-minute play based on a prompt declared by Wellman several weeks prior. The prompt was “write a bad play,” and considering the overall quality of the finished pieces, it was very debatable whether-or-not the criteria was actually achieved by any of the playwrights… Angelo Maneage’s Better Than a Day Spent on Fire was particularly not bad, with hilarious performances by Angelo’s own creative-writing professor Craig A. Webb, and The Manhattan Project’s Peter J Roth, who also played host for the late event.
Saturday morning featured a panel discussion moderated by Cleveland State’s Associate Professor of playwriting Mike Geither. The Panel members including Rob Handel of Carnegie Mellon University discussed their various experiences working with and learning from Wellman, as well as their personal takes on his material. Professor Geither specifically credited Wellman as the reason he decided to stay with playwriting as his medium, and each panelist recognized Mac as an exemplary model of a working artist. Theatre Ninjas presented Saturday’s first performance with a staged reading of Wellman’s Sincerity Forever (1990). A comedic edgy ensemble piece that took on maters of spiritual and philosophical nature through the dim-witted members of a white supremacy group, and an African American female version of “Jesus H. Christ”. Encore performances of The Sandalwood Box and Bitter Bierce led up to Convergence-Continuum’s presentation of Wellman’s Harm’s Way (1978), which headlined the night.
The festival wrapped following Harm’s Way at The Tremont Tap House, which I can only assume was a terrific time had by all, as I was not in attendance due to my having to work on this article… However, I think most would have to rate this fest as a success on many levels. At one point Friday afternoon Mac Wellman spoke of the importance of writers and performers getting together in groups and working with each other in collaborative measures. This Homecoming event seemed to accomplish just that. So until next time CSU, I’ll be busy working on my own plays, for this weekend gave me a lot to think about.