The William Inge Theatre Festival has a long rich history of honoring great living playwrights, acknowledging these too-often underappreciated creative heroes of the stage. But the 32nd annual Inge Festival in 2013 changes pace: honoring its namesake American icon William Inge, to celebrate the centennial of his birth.
The William Inge Theatre Festival at Independence Community College takes place May 1-4 of 2013, in Inge’s rural hometown of Independence, Kansas, where, annually, Broadway and Hollywood artists meet on the prairie to mingle with visitors from more than 24 states.
Over the years, internationally renowned dramatists including Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein journeyed to Independence. But in 2013, focus is on Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning William Motter Inge, born May 3, 1913. His gravesite in this town of 9,000 is simply marked “William Inge: Playwright,” a modest designation for one of the America’s most soul-searching dramatists, whose work enlightened several generations.
“The nation is reconnecting with the tremendous depth of William Inge’s work, and recognizing the legacy of his great drama,” said Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the Inge Center. “The 100th anniversary of his birth marks a perfect occasion to celebrate the Midwest’s first authentic voice for the stage. It’s a testament to his timeless genius for understanding human frailty that his plays are resonating with audiences sixty years later.”
“The opening of a revival of ‘Picnic’ on Broadway in January 2013 makes two Broadway revivals of Inge works in four years,” he noted. “There is a resurgence of appreciation in his empathetic characters, as they strive to deal with the difficulties of their lives. It’s been more than sixty years since the opening of his first Broadway hit, ‘Come Back, Little Sheba,’ and his characters are just and real and alive for a modern audience.”
Inge remains the only American dramatist to score four consecutive Broadway hits, with “Sheba” (1950), “Picnic” (1953), “Bus Stop” (1955) and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1957) tumbling forth as critical and commercial successes. Each was turned into a major Hollywood film with the biggest stars of the era.
Inge also wrote for film and television, most famously winning the Oscar for best screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
“The wonderful playwright Jerome Lawrence [“Inherit the Wind,” “Auntie Mame”] was a friend of William Inge, and when Inge Festival founder Margaret Goheen, Theatre Instructor at Independence Community College, was looking to start a festival in William Inge’s name, it was Mr. Lawrence who suggested honoring a living playwright,” said Ellenstein. “Mr. Lawrence believed that Inge himself, who battled depression, would have been heartened and encouraged if a festival had celebrated his achievements when he was alive.”
The first Inge Festival was in 1981, eight years after Inge’s death, and celebrated Inge’s exemplary plays. In the next year, Jerome Lawrence traveled to Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas, to accept the initial William Inge Theatre Festival Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre Award.
The roll call of Honorees since includes virtually every internationally acclaimed stage writer in the nation.
“Part of what makes the Inge Festival so one-of-a-kind is that all our Honorees travel to this rural small town of Independence,” said Ellenstein. “Upon arrival, our Honorees experience some ‘culture shock,’ but they are quickly won over. All our out-of-town guests remark that the hometown hospitality and small-town setting is what they find so incomparable.”
“Hundreds of local residents volunteer year-round in the planning and execution of the Inge Festival,” Ellenstein said. “It wouldn’t be possible for a small town to throw such an amazing event if it weren’t for the volunteers.”
Though the Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre Award won’t be presented in the coming year, the Inge Festival will retain many of its well-known traditions. “We shall still present the Otis Guernsey New Voices in the American Theatre Award,” said Ellenstein. “This award was created to salute the up and coming playwrights who become some of our stage’s brightest lights. For over 20 years, the Inge Festival’s Otis Guernsey New Voices winners have graced our festival audiences with first looks at outstanding work that ends up in major theatres around the country and often on Broadway.”
The peer-nominated and peer-selected award is named after the late theater scholar and critic Otis L. Guernsey, a champion of new scripts and a frequent guest at the Inge Festival. A play by the New Voices winner takes places Thursday night of the Inge Festival, on May 2.
On Friday, May 3, professional performers from across the nation join in the Gala Dinner, which naturally serves as the official “100th Birthday Party” for William Inge. The event is a fund-raiser for continuing renovation and maintenance of the historic William Inge Boyhood Home, which serves Independence Community College and the community as a year-round artist retreat.
The house, with its expansive front porch and early 20th century architecture, is the obvious inspiration for many of William Inge’s plays such as “Picnic” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”.
The 2013 Inge Festival, which opens on Wednesday, May 1 with a program to be announced, concludes on Saturday, May 4, with a tribute to William Inge’s rich career for film, television, and the stage featuring performances by many of America’s leading actors.
In addition to evening performances by professionals from Broadway and Hollywood, Inge Festival patrons enjoy workshops, panel discussions, a scholars' conference and numerous social events throughout the day.
The Inge Festival and Inge Center are sponsored by Independence Community College, William Inge’s alma mater. The William Inge Center for the Arts is a constituent member of Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the American theatre.
This program is presented in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, which believes a great nation deserves great art.
Further major supporters of the William Inge Center for the Arts include Independence Community College and the William Inge Festival Foundation.
The Inge Festival's setting is the quaint small town of Independence, located in rural southeast Kansas. It is 90 miles north of Tulsa, Okla., and 140 miles south of Kansas City, Mo.
Independence Community College is also home to the William Inge Collection, which includes correspondence, original artwork, and some 400 of his original scripts, as well as Inge's personal library and record collections. It also houses a number of Inge manuscripts that have never been published.
In 2012, the Inge Festival presented the first public performance of one of the unpublished manuscripts, titled “Off the Main Road.” In 2009, six of Inge’s unpublished plays from the Inge Collection were publicly performed for the first time, five at the Inge Festival and one world premiere in New York.
The Inge Collection at Independence Community College is the most extensive collection on William Inge in existence, and remains a valuable resource for both theater researchers and admirers of the playwright.
Thanks primarily to the work of longtime Tribute creator Mike Wood of Wichita State University, the Inge Center has amassed a vast collection of video interviews of America's leading playwrights, composers, actors, directors, producers and other theatre professionals, gathered over the last three decades. A sampling of playwright interviews is available on the website www.ingefestival.org. The rest of the video collection is in the process of being digitally preserved for future generations.
Tickets for the 32nd Annual William Inge Theatre Festival go on sale online in the spring of 2013. For further information, visit www.ingecenter.org or call (800) 842-6063 ext. 5492.