The 2017 Hollins-Mill Mountain Partnership Winter Festival of New Works begins Friday with a play that’s already an award winner.

“COLD” joins a married lesbian couple in a hospital waiting room as their 5-year-old daughter undergoes surgery. The play by Ben Jolivet, a graduate student in the Hollins Playwright’s Lab, is being performed on Mill Mountain Theatre’s Waldron Stage through Jan. 28.

It’s the first of three plays on the New Works festival schedule. Children’s play “Marvelous Cornelius” will be performed Jan. 28 on MMT’s Trinkle Main Stage. “She Made Space,” a monodrama about a woman’s voyage of self-discovery, will be shown in the Upstairs Studio Theatre at Hollins in February.

The festival, in its fourth year, continues a partnership between Hollins and Mill Mountain Theatre that has a national reputation for fostering theater talent, said Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab. “Roanoke is a place where exciting and important new work is happening,” he said.

In December, “COLD” won the 2017 David L. Shelton Award for Playwriting in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s Region IV division, which spans eight states and the southern portion of Virginia.


“COLD” stars Roanoke actresses Bonny Branch and Emma Sperka as a couple awaiting potentially life-shattering news. The point of the play isn’t whether their daughter survives surgery, Ristau said, but “Who are these people, how did they get to be the way they are, and are they going to stay that way?”

Ristau is directing “COLD.” He said Jolivet’s play aims to make the audience feel as if they’re eavesdropping on real people rather than watching a scripted story. “We’re working really hard to have the play have a complete absence of artifice.”

Though the situation is serious, there’s humor that arises, as well, Ristau said. “I think people will really, despite the pain, come from the play really glad that they’ve met these people.”

‘Marvelous Cornelius’

Children’s picture book “Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans” by New York writer Phil Bidner received the first $1,000 Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature from Hollins in 2016. Brown, author of the classics “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny,” was a 1932 graduate of Hollins College.

“Marvelous Cornelius” takes its inspiration from the true story of Cornelius Washington, a New Orleans sanitation worker who gained notoriety for turning trash collecting into musical performance art. The book transforms Cornelius into a mythical figure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a sort of Pied Piper who leads residents in cleaning up the city.

“It’s a very cool story,” said Ernie Zulia, director of the Hollins Theatre Institute. The book was adapted for stage by Hollins Playwright’s Lab student Shane Strawbridge. Performed by Hollins students, the play will tour at schools in the region, and more grade-school students will come by bus to see it on the Hollins campus.

“The whole thing is exciting,” Zulia said. “It brings our students into a very important aspect of theater, which is theater for young audiences.”

‘She Made Space’

“She Made Space,” was written by Playwright’s Lab student Meredith Dayna Levy, whose plays have racked up honors. “Decision Height,” about Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, was published by Samuel French, the most prestigious publisher of English language plays. “Coupler,” set in a subway car, won the 2016 David L. Shelton Award.

The play features a single character, Echo, played by Sperka, described in promotional materials as “a 20-something American intellectual lesbian tourist arriving in Paris at the turn of the century.” Echo’s journey explores the lives of women from the past who made her life in the present possible.

“‘She Made Space’ is a really beautiful, semi-autobiographical story by Meredith,” Ristau said, that shows “how the threads of who you are are connected to the people who came before.”

“She Made Space” will also be touring, including performances in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Both “She Made Space” and “COLD” will have staged readings at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in March as part of a showcase of the Hollins Playwright’s Lab.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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