Summer 2006

Creating Drama

Mike Wood
                                         Photo by Melissa Lacey ’05
Mike Wood heads Wichita State's Media Resources 

For 25 years, the head of Wichita State’s Media Resources Center, Mike Wood, has quietly chronicled anecdotes and advice from some of America’s most critically acclaimed playwrights.

Now, his work is beginning to reach a wider audience.

Every spring since 1982, the city of Independence, Kan., has celebrated a native son with the William Inge Theatre Festival.

Each year, in honor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Picnic and Bus Stop, festival organizers invite a major American playwright to Independence for a weekend both scholarly and theatrical.

The festival attracts performers and guests from around the country and closer to home.

Since first awardee Jerome Lawrence — co-author of Inherit the Wind — the recipients of  the festival’s Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre Awards include names familiar to even the most casual theatergoer:

William Gibson (The Miracle Worker), Horton Foote (A Trip to Bountiful), Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Peter Shaffer (Amadeus), Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), August Wilson (The Piano Lesson), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story) and the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago).

Not bad for a town of 10,000, whose other claim to fame is the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead. The festival is centered on Independence Community College, which Inge attended (when called Independence Junior College).

In 1965 ICC began collecting press clippings, memorabilia and books about their illustrious alumnus, and in 1969 Inge himself donated the original manuscripts of four plays, including Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba. Following Inge’s death, his sister, Helene (Inge) Connell, donated the playwright’s book and record collections to the college.

The collection officially opened in October 1981 with a festival of films based on Inge’s work; the next year saw a festival honoring Inge himself. Ever since, the festival has continued to expand, now featuring year-round programs at the William Inge Center for the Arts, the Otis Guernsey New Voices Playwrighting Award, given to an up-and-coming writer and the Playwright-in-Residence program, which allows an author to live and work in Inge’s boyhood home.

The Man Behind the Curtain

The spirit of William Inge’s Midwestern realism has pervaded his namesake festival since its inception. But there’s at least one other common thread: Mike Wood, executive director of Wichita State’s Media Resources Center since 1990.

Like Inge, Wood is a theatrically minded graduate of Independence Community College, and when ICC held the initial festival 24 years ago on Inge’s birthday, Wood, who also holds an MFA in cinema and television production from the University of Southern California, wrote and directed a multimedia presentation about the lauded playwright: William Inge: Penn Avenue to Broadway.

Since then, Wood has compiled tributes for all awardees, from Jerome Lawrence (1983) to Tina Howe (2005). The honoree in 1997, the prolific comic Neil Simon, preferred his Wood-created tribute to the Kennedy Center Honors he had received two years before! At this year’s Inge Festival 25th Anniversary Reunion in April, Wood himself was a focus of attention as the first recipient of the Jerome Lawrence Award for outstanding contributions to the national theatre and the Inge Festival.

One of the most crucial aspects of Wood’s tributes is the interview. Two or three months before the festival in the playwrights’ homes (mostly New York City or Los Angeles), Wood and his camera crew rearrange furniture — or not, depending on the author’s preference — and, for three hours, try to get behind the weariness of people too used to interviews.

It’s not difficult, says Wood: “After the first half hour, when they see I’ve done my homework, read their plays, read their biographies, know other people they know, they get more comfortable.”

Eventually, these interviews are edited into part of a two-hour tribute that also includes live readings from the honoree’s work and congratulatory messages from other playwrights.

Finding an Audience

“We started with the idea that we were doing the interviews just for the tributes. But over the years, as we got more and more footage, it seemed a shame to just put it on the shelf,” says Wood.

This footage has in many cases grown more precious since its filming: Jerome Lawrence, Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein have all died since 2004. But because most of the interviews were recorded on analog 3/4 inch and Beta SP tape, their impending deterioration was a very real issue. Luckily, Wichita State’s MRC and ICC were awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to archive, transcribe and digitize the collection.

The ultimate goal is to widen the audience for these interviews, previously available only to Inge Festival attendees. To this end, Wood is working on an online archive that features streaming video as well as text transcriptions of the playwrights speaking on a variety of topics.

A National Endowment for the Arts funded project, Playwrights on Video currently features twelve authors.

Wood hopes this accessible resource will help everyone from “students doing a research paper on Edward Albee to someone in Berlin producing The Zoo Story for the first time.”    

He’s also optimistic that producers of documentaries for larger audiences such as PBS will discover and utilize the festival’s files.

In collaboration with Films Media Group, Wood has also produced a 46-minute documentary called The Drama of Creation: Writers on Writing. Narrated by Inge Center artistic director Peter Ellenstein and edited by Wood’s MRC colleague Steve Worley fs ’95, the film features 15 of the Inge Festival honorees and is directed towards aspiring writers.

It organizes thoughts from the playwrights on important topics such as dialogue, structure, routine and the ever-maddening “Where do ideas come from?” The film, produced and distributed by Films for the Humanities & Sciences, portrays the quirks and philosophies of these great writers with little editorial comment.

Thanks to the work of Wood and the others at the Inge Festival, great American theater doesn’t have to stay on Broadway: it can come to a small town in Kansas, then explode again worldwide over the Internet — a truly global stage.

William Inge
Playwright William Inge
was born May 3, 1913 in
Independence, Kan.

Inge and Independence

Playwright William Inge was born May 3, 1913 in Independence, Kan. After graduating from Independence Community College, Inge earned a drama degree from the University of Kansas in 1935 and then a master’s at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tenn., in 1938.

He was a radio announcer, taught high school drama and English and was a faculty member at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., before becoming, in 1943, a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.

While there he met and befriended Tennessee Williams; after accompanying the playwright to a performance of his The Glass Menagerie, Inge “was terrifically moved by the play. I went back to St. Louis and felt, ‘Well, I’ve got to write a play.” Within three months he’d penned Farther Off From Heaven.

But it was his next work, Come Back, Little Sheba, that made his reputation in 1950, winning acclaim for its starkly realistic themes of alcoholism and unwanted pregnancy. This play was followed by 1953’s Picnic, which netted Inge a Pulitzer Prize, 1955’s Bus Stop (the 1956 film version starred Marilyn Monroe) and 1957’s semi-autobiographical The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

After these triumphs and his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Splendor in the Grass (1960), Inge’s career went into decline. He taught for two years at the University of California at Irvine, but quit due to depression, perhaps exacerbated by shame over his own homosexuality. Tragically, the man who brought ordinary Midwestern people to Broadway took his own life June 10, 1973.


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