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Center stage

Two Mizzou student writers compete at national college theater festival

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  • Story and photos by Josh Murray
  • Published: April 17, 2012
Amanda Newman and Hannah Baxter

Mizzou seniors Hannah Baxter (left) and Amanda Newman were chosen to participate in the annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C. Newman is a finalist for the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play, and Baxter is taking part in the National Critics Institute.

Since opening in 1971, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has hosted some of the best-known artists in theater. This week two seniors from Mizzou join their ranks.

Amanda Newman and Hannah Baxter convene at the nation’s capital for the annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), a national theater program involving more than 18,000 students. The festival has served as a catalyst in improving the quality of college theater.

MU has been active member of KCACTF since its inception. Mizzou theater-production, acting, playwriting and design students have been invited as national finalists to present their work at the Kennedy Center. Last year MU graduate student Matt Fotis won the Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting, KCACTF's award honoring the best student-written, full-length comic script in the nation.

This year, Newman’s one-act play, The Lost Slipper, is a finalist for the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play, and Baxter has been invited to participate in the National Critics Institute

“The KCACTF experience can be life-changing,” says David Crespy, a professor in MU’s Department of Theatre. “It really encouraged both students and faculty to reach for innovation in their work.”

Finding a voice

Newman and Baxter have followed similar paths to the Kennedy Center. Both came to Mizzou as journalism majors but found creative writing associated with theater more to their liking.

“I always wanted to write plays,” Newman says. “Journalism involves writing, but it’s just not the same. I like the creative opportunities that come with playwriting.”

Newman switched her major to English during her freshman year and has since added communication science and disorders as a second major. Baxter took a playwriting class as a freshman, fell in love with it and, like Newman, changed her major to English.

Both students got involved programs such as MU’s New Play Series, which led them to the KCACTF competition.

For three years, Newman submitted plays for the KCACTF regional festival, but each time her plays were passed over. That changed this year; two of her plays were chosen for the regional competition.

“It’s funny that I applied for so many years and didn’t hear anything.” Newman says. “Then this year I had two plays selected, and I am going to Washington, D.C.”

Newman’s one-act play, The Lost Slipper, and her 10-minute play, Please Wear Red, were selected as regional finalists, with the former earning her a trip to Washington, D. C., as a national finalist.

“It’s a tribute to her patience and professionalism that she finally won,” Crespy says.

International inspiration

The Lost Slipper is a story of an American couple adopting a baby from China. It is actually two stories in one: the story of the American couple’s journey to China and dealings with the adoption process and the story of the Chinese mother giving up her child.

Newman got the idea after seeing a documentary on the One Child Policy in China, which is the overarching theme of the play.

“I feel like a lot of my plays come from a journalistic pursuit,” Newman says. “I guess there is still some part of me that thinks like a journalism major.”

The Lost Slipper has been selected to for full production at MU next year.

For Baxter, the road to where she is today includes a journey through Greece. Last summer, she joined a group for a study abroad trip that was part of the Summer Seminars in Greece created by Scott Cairns in the English department, and Crespy was invited to teach playwriting with the program.

“The best decision I’ve ever made was to go on that trip,” Baxter says. “It was an amazing experience.”

With lessons in modern Greek in the morning, writing workshops in the afternoon and speakers on Greek music, history, politics and culture in the evening, there was little down time. However, the group did find time to hike to the Acropolis and visit the Theatre of Dionysus while in Athens before spending three weeks on the island of Serifos, writing and working on plays that explored Greek drama.

After that trip, Baxter’s affection for theater grew, and she wanted to explore as many facets of it as possible. She learned about theater criticism from Crespy and decided to give it a shot, not knowing that it could produce a trip to the Kennedy Center.

“I didn’t really have any experience with theater criticism,” says Baxter, who read reviews in the New York Times, as well as local publications, to prepare for the regional festival. “I was going up against a lot of journalism majors and people who had taken theater criticism classes.”

No business like show business

For Baxter, the national festival is more than just a competition. There are opportunities to see other nominees in action as well as to attend shows around Washington, D.C., outside of the festival.

“I’m not so concerned about winning,” Baxter says. “This is a career path that has opened up for me. I want to explore it and get some last-minute instruction before graduation.”

While Washington, D.C., is in Baxter’s near future, her long-term sights are set on New York City, where she has attended many Broadway plays with her family.

“It’s the theater hub,” she says. “If you want to do theater, that’s where you want to be.”

That may be the case, but for this month, the Kennedy Center will be the hub for college theater students, and Mizzou will be well represented.

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Last updated: April 18, 2012