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 as 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."