GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Catherine Hanson as Mary Todd Lincoln, at left, expresses her dismay as Sam Shabel portrays Abraham Lincoln’s decision to represent a murder suspect in the original play, “My Next Husband Will Be Rich.” The play was written by Chatfield playwright Joe Chase for the second annual Wits’ End Theatre play festival. 
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Catherine Hanson as Mary Todd Lincoln, at left, expresses her dismay as Sam Shabel portrays Abraham Lincoln’s decision to represent a murder suspect in the original play, “My Next Husband Will Be Rich.” The play was written by Chatfield playwright Joe Chase for the second annual Wits’ End Theatre play festival. 
Aliens, angst, wiener dogs and Abraham Lincoln.

Now that’s a tale or two worth staging.

“Playwriting is storytelling. People have been telling each other stories – new stories they just made up, and old favorites that have been heard many times – for thousands of years, so this is one of the oldest art forms there is,” said Chatfield playwright and thespian Joe Chase.

“These stories are dramatized with actors presenting the tale on the stage, and that adds to the entertainment…it’s fun to get a script from New York and do someone else’s show, but who says we can’t write and tell interesting stories of our own right here in southeast Minnesota?” Chase questioned as he shared his excitement over the second annual Wits’ End Theatre (WET) Festival of Short Plays coming to the stage at the Chatfield Center for the Arts’ (CCA) Legion Room Feb. 17 and 18.

The WET veteran added, “That’s what this festival is all about – telling stories that haven’t been heard before. With our Festival of Short Plays, we want to give local dramatists a chance to have their works publicly performed, and offer local theater-goers the opportunity to sample plays written, directed and performed by their southeastern Minnesota neighbors.”

Chase also pointed out that the audiences will be the judges of the plays being presented.

He added, “This festival comes together unlike anything else Wits’ End Theatre does. The writer-directors write, cast and rehearse their shows entirely independently of each other, and then we bring them together at dress rehearsal. None of us knows exactly what the festival is going to look like in its entirety until the night before the first performance, when we all get to see each other’s plays for the first time, so that’s thrilling and scary at the same time.”

The festival features the works of Chase, Preston playwright Ruth Furan and Chatfield High School student Blair Crouch.

Chase elaborated, “All three playwrights are from this area. Back again for this year’s festival is Chatfield High School’s own Blair Crouch, with a play that she has written and directed called ‘A Night In.’”

“A Night In” is a comedy about two young friends hanging out together and watching TV — at least, that’s the young man’s plan – and discussing that it’s a lot harder for a girl to find fairytale love in real life than in storybooks.

“Anyone who has seen one of Blair’s plays or watched her on stage or on YouTube knows she is an extraordinary talent,” Chase added. “(She is) one of those remarkable young people whose energy and creativity are inspiring to everyone around her. Her playwriting displays a flair for funny, insightful dialogue and smart, spot-on depictions of today’s young adults and their world. In ‘A Night In,’ Blair will be joined onstage by her friend, Owen Radke.”

Ruth Furan of Preston has been writing for years, and she is bringing two of her plays to this year’s festival, Chase said. The first, “Wiener Dog Worries” is a hilarious comedy that tells the story of two dachshunds, Milo and Guthrie. Milo is the old dog in the family, accustomed to the comfort and familiarity of the status quo. Now he has to adjust to the havoc that arrives with young Guthrie, who has his own ideas about canine hierarchy and family dynamics.

Chase interjected, “Wait, dogs? You bet. Milo will be played by Rick Nance of Cresco, Iowa, and in the role of Guthrie will be Randy Wilson, star of past Wits’ End and Lanesboro Community Theatre productions.”

Furan herself will play the human role.

“This show was first produced for the Mosaic Community Theatre in Mankato, and later at the 2013 Minnesota Short Play Festival, where it won the ‘Best of the Fest’ award in that statewide competition,” Chase said.

Furan’s other play in the festival is “Food for Thought,” a tale of a space explorer, Jack, whose ship has been captured by aliens. The alien leader, an amiable, hospitable chap named Cosmo, invites Jack to a feast that Cosmo promises will build a communion of understanding between their cultures.

Jack will be played by Randy Wilson and Cosmo will be played by Rick Nance.

“WET is thrilled that a writer of Ruth Furan’s ability and stature will be part of our festival this year,” he added.

Chase’s works will illustrate his fascination with President Abraham Lincoln’s perspectives on law and sharing this earthly plane with other human beings.

“Both are scenes selected from my full-length play called ‘Lincoln for the Defense,’ about Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 murder-trial defense of Duff Armstrong,” Chase explained. “Those who attended last year’s festival saw a scene from that longer play, with Sam Shabel playing prairie lawyer Lincoln, and Nathaniel Chase playing his law partner, Billy Herndon. Sam and Nathaniel are back this year to do another piece from the play, this time a scene that I call ‘Do You Have Any Good News?’ in which the defense team examines the discouragingly convincing evidence that their client is a murderer.”

Chase’s other piece, entitled “My Next Husband Will Be Rich,” depicts Lincoln at home with his wife, Mary, who is not pleased to learn that Abe has agreed to defend the son of his old friend, Hannah Armstrong, against a charge of murder. Catherine Hanson of Rochester will make her debut on the Chatfield stage as Mary Lincoln.

Chase called bringing original pieces of theater to the stage incredibly rewarding.

“Speaking as a writer, the best part by far is seeing the show come to life and seeing if the audience thinks it’s any good,” he said. “You don’t write these things to have them sit in a desk drawer. You write them for evenings just like this.”

Chase also said, “If you’ve enjoyed theater for a lifetime, as we have, and now you’ve written a play because you think you have a pretty good idea for a show, you want to see actors perform it. You want to see an audience watch it and react to it.”

He feels a great deal of accomplishment in the process — taking it from an idea to words on a page, and then to actors on a stage and an audience responding to the story.

“It is an amazing creative process that not many folks get to do,” Chase said. “We all feel very fortunate to have this chance to create brand new theater of our own. Obviously, we have writers telling a variety of stories about very different things. The angst of teenage romance. Wiener dogs. Space aliens. And trial lawyer Abraham Lincoln. We’re all moved to tell a story, but what different stories!”

Having not seen the other plays, Chase is curious and enthusiastic about what Crouch and Furan will have gifted to the community, particularly because of their talents and also because of the talents of the thespians portraying their characters.

Chase advised audience members they won’t have to be concerned about dozing off, by any means. “This will not be the kind of theatrical entertainment in which you sit back and settle in for two hours as a story slowly unfolds before you,” he said. “These pieces will move fast, and no sooner will one end than the next one will be coming onto the stage. It will be a lively evening.”

Chase also promises audience members an evening that will be funny and thought-provoking.

“You don’t often get to see new art presented live for the first time, and that’s what we’re doing,” he continued. “It’ll be five interesting shows, seen close up, with complimentary cookies and beverages at intermission. I am certain our audiences will be greatly entertained. I think they’ll leave the CCA talking about these short shows, and maybe they’ll be a little inspired to put their own creative energy to use, making and doing the things that give them joy. That’s what these plays are for those of us involved in the festival.”

Wits’ End Theatre will host its Festival of Short Plays on Friday, Feb. 17, and Saturday, Feb. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chatfield Center for the Arts, 405 S. Main, Chatfield.

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students, including coffee, punch and designer cookies at intermission.

Tickets will be available at the door on the evening of performances, and doors will open at 6:45 p.m. For more information, log onto www.witsendtheatre.org.