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SoCal playwrights score at Kennedy Center college theater festival

Arts and CultureMusical TheaterColleges and UniversitiesJohn F. Kennedy Center for the Performing ArtsEntertainmentTheaterHaiti

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This spring’s National Football League draft will tell us who the most prized college players are. It’s thought to be a good year for quarterbacks.

College and university talent in the arts gets no such showcase. Perhaps the nearest thing is the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, held each spring in Washington. It’s a good year for Southern California playwrights.

The Kennedy Center announced Thursday that Jeff Augustin of UC San Diego and Brian Polak of USC have won $1,000 first-place awards for full-length plays, with $500 runner-up awards going to Michael Yichao of the California Institute of the Arts and Kristin Idaszak of UC San Diego.

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Winners in two playwriting categories -- short play and 10-minute play -- won’t be decided until the four finalists in each genre are given staged readings at the festival, April 14-19. Polak’s short play, “War Profits,” and Yichao’s 10-minute “Bread” give Southern California a shot in each category.

For UC San Diego’s Augustin, who’ll receive his master’s degree in playwriting in June, it’s the second time he’s won the festival’s Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for work about the African American experience. His first winner, “Cry Old Kingdom,” in 2011, went on to become his first professional production -- and in a prestigious venue, the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Les Waters, a former UC San Diego theater professor who’s now artistic director of Actors Theatre, picked it for last year’s Humana Festival.

Augustin’s new Kennedy Center winner is “Little Children Dream of God,” which also springs from his Haitian heritage; he was born not long after his parents had landed in Miami. “Cry Old Kingdom,” set in Haiti in the 1960s, dealt with people living during the tyrannical reign of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier; the protagonist of “Little Children Dream of God” is a young woman trying to make her way in Miami after having floated there from Haiti on a tire.

“These kinds of awards are very helpful in getting your name out there and getting people interested in your work,” Augustin said Thursday from La Jolla.

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Besides the cash, winners and runners-up for the Kennedy Center playwriting awards receive fellowships to attend prominent annual new-play workshops such as the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah and the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

Augustin, 28, said he’ll move to New York City this summer to begin a one-year playwriting residency at the Roundabout Theatre Company, which has commissioned him to write a play while covering his living expenses.

At UCSD, he studied under veteran playwright Naomi Iizuka, who heads the theater department's master’s degree playwriting program. “She’s been an amazing influence on my work, she’s taken me to the next level as a writer, and she’s just been lovely,” he said.

Just as in 2011, Augustin won’t be able to enjoy an expenses-paid trip to the Kennedy Center to receive his award and hear excerpts from his play read to festival participants and invited guests.

UCSD’s annual Wagner New Play Festival, made up of works by its graduate students, overlaps the Kennedy Center festival, and Augustin will be in La Jolla for the April 16-24 staging of his last student play, “In the Crowding Darkness.”

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A description on the theater department’s website says it concerns a veteran who returns from the conflict in Afghanistan hoping to quietly resume his life with his longtime domestic partner. His plans change “when they’re asked to become the black gay poster couple for a same-sex marriage campaign.”

Polak, a third-year master’s degree candidate in dramatic writing at USC, won the Kennedy Center festival’s Jean Kennedy Smith Award for plays that explore the experience of living with a disability. “Henry and the Hippocampus” is about a man who’s unable to create new memories after suffering a head injury; USC will stage it in a May 27-31 festival on campus.

CalArts' Yichao, who was born in China and grew up in Arizona, was named runner-up for the Kennedy Center festival’s Paul Stephen Lim playwriting award for students of Asian or Pacific Rim heritage for the second time, sandwiched around a first-place finish in 2013. UCSD's Idaszak was runner-up for the Paula Vogel Award for plays that celebrate diversity while focusing on issues of gender and sexuality.

In the production categories, this year's honorees include “AutoPlay: Stop, Yield and Detour,” created by the Theatre Academy of Los Angeles City College, a runner-up for best production and best direction of a new work. It tapped into the Southern California “car play” phenomenon, in which an automobile becomes a theater, with two actors performing in the front seat and two playgoers seated in back.

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A production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" by Westmont College in Santa Barbara was a runner-up in three production categories, including best musical and best director.

The Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy and Cal State Fullerton have been frequent contenders over the years in the Kennedy Center Festival’s production categories.

In 2013, Cal State Fullerton’s staging of “Godspell” was voted the outstanding production of a musical and won top directing honors for theater professors Jim Taulli and Craig Tyrl. LACC’s 2013 entry, “Untitled Andy Warhol Project,” was a “devised work” -- one created from scratch by the directors and cast -- that won a top award for the co-directors, professor Leslie Ferreira and Tina Kronis and Richard Alger of the L.A. stage company Theatre Movement Bazaar; it was the runner-up for best devised production.

Though the playwriting awards are based on judges reading the contending scripts, the production awards are judged live at eight regional festivals sponsored by the Kennedy Center festival.

Festival artistic director Gregg Henry, who gets a vote, said the idea is to have enough judges attend more than one regional festival to allow for an informed discussion. Only Henry sees them all -- now more than 900 collegiate performances in his 14-year run as artistic director.

For the record, March 17, 11:28 a.m.: An earlier version of this post had a wrong spelling of Jean Kennedy Smith's first name.

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