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Raw ambition: Festival gives artists, playwrights a chance to gauge new and unfinished work

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Guitarist Greg Lowe, a musical genre-jumper for over 35 years in Winnipeg, is feeling like a raw rookie as he makes his debut at the kickoff of the Carol Shields Festival of New Works.

The ever-versatile Lowe has composed the music for almost 30 local stage shows, but the Shields showcase will see him performing a couple of tunes from his first musical, a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It's been a long time since he's felt like such a beginner.

"It's a whole new bag," says the 56-year-old Lowe. "It keeps life exciting for me."

He shares the stage, performing Rag Man Rag and Scrooge Dispelled with local stage actors Carson Nattrass, Andrea Houssin, Melanie Whyte and Doug McKeag, the latter two fresh from appearing in Dry Cold Productions' A Man of No Importance.

"I'm playing guitar and singing the part of the Undertaker, which is a bit of a singing debut for me," Lowe says, prior to rehearsal this week. "I've been singing backup harmonies all my life, but to get up there with the likes of those people is very different."

Lowe was brought into the musical family project after his cousin in Toronto, Jerry Agar, and his Winnipeg aunt Elizabeth Petit wrote the lyrics for about 30 songs based on the Charles Dickens Christmas classic. He has penned four songs recorded by the local R&B/pop/rock band Ministers of Cool, of which he is a member.

The 11th annual festival, presented by Prairie Theatre Exchange, will provide a jolt of community excitement for artists who have long been toiling in isolation. The payoff for Lowe is that he gets to see his work publicly performed for the first time by a professional cast and then judge audience response.

"And thirdly, it lets people know I'm working on it and in a couple of years it will be on its feet," he says.

That bid for public attention is common to all the artists at the festival. They all want to be noticed, at the very least appreciated, by their first audiences and perhaps so impress an artistic director that their work gets added to a theatre's season. An impressive list of plays introduced at the festival in the last decade have gone on to major productions, including Summer of My Amazing Luck by Chris Craddock, Head by Debbie Patterson, The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe and Trish Cooper's Social Studies, which premièred at PTE last November.

This year's lineup includes readings of Oswald by Rhéal Cenerini, The House Left Standing by Priscilla Yakielashek, #perfect by Monique Marcker and Andraea Sartison, Eye Through the Window by Sarah Constible and Ross McMillan and One Trunk Theatre's I Dreamed of Diesel. Based on festival's history, at least one of the titles will be snapped up for a future regular theatre season spot.

Alix Sobler is introducing her third work at the festival, The Great Divide, which tells the story of some of the 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, who died in a 1911 New York City factory fire.

Sobler, who raised her playwriting profile this past season with the speculative Anne Frank drama The Secret Annex, has experienced both sides of what the Shields festival has to offer: the euphoria of seeing Some Things You Keep being cheered in 2008 and immediately picked up by the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre for a 2010 production; and the crushing disappointment of The Golem being met with viewer indifference and no producer interest.

"This festival is the envy of cities all over the world," says the New York-born Sobler. "When I tell people that we do readings and people show up to hear them and give their feedback, they are shocked."

A public reading of a rough draft gives writers crucial clues as to what is working for audiences and whether the story/idea is worth pursuing. Such reaction can often send playwrights back to their computers with a renewed clarity and purpose.

"This festival is an amazing resource for local writers," Sobler says. "Usually you have to wait for a workshop to get feedback. It's a great opportunity to force yourself to be vulnerable in a safe place. It's pivotal in that it will inform your future work on a play."

The two-hour gala on May 15 kicks off with a volley of short shots -- 10-minute playlets based on this year's theme: real conversations overheard by the playwrights. Choreographer Brett Lott will unveil a solo piece called Bridled before Lowe takes to the stage. He will be followed by a ballet called Caught in Kerfuffles, created by student Phillippe Larouche and performed by Royal Winnipeg Ballet's professional division.

The evening climaxes with guest speaker Debbie Patterson, who used verbatim theatre in her provocative work Sargent & Victor & Me, which premièred in February at Theatre Projects Manitoba. She will talk about the relationship between artist and audience and what makes it stronger.

I Dreamed of Diesel will be read at 7 p.m. Friday, May 16, followed by Oswald at 8:30. The May 17 lineup starts with The Great Divide at 2 p.m., followed by #perfect at 4 p.m., Eye From the Window at 7 p.m. and The House Left Standing at 9 p.m.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2014 C3

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