California playwright wins FRT contest, James Panowski

Neil McGowan, a California playwright, won the 2008 Mildred and Albert Panowski Playwriting Award at Northern Michigan University.
Tracks in the Snow, McGowan’s terse drama and coming-of-age love story, was selected from almost 400 entries from the United States and abroad.
McGowan will receive a $2,000 stipend and see his play presented in November on the Forest Roberts Theatre stage as the second production of the Brave New World theatre season at NMU.
This summer, McGowan participated in a week-long workshop in Marquette with director Kelly L. Passinault, dramaturge George Sapio (a previous winner with Ghosts), and a town-n-gown cast.
In November, McGowan will be flown into Marquette the week prior to production to serve as artist-in-residence. He will work with the director and cast, and meet with various theatre, English and Communications classes, and serve as featured speaker at the First Nighters Club (the theatre booster organization) Sneak Preview Luncheon.
Tracks in the Snow is the saga of a stranger (Chase) who crashes his car in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard. He is taken in by the insular Gould family until the storm abates.
Chase, a man with a mysterious past, appears to be on an equally mystifying quest. He disrupts the solitude of the family and becomes attached to their youngest daughter, Leauna. Part Bill Starbuck (The Rainmaker) and part Harold Hill (The Music Man), Chase opens Leauna’s eyes to a brave new world, leaving the Goulds changed forever.
McGowan, who lives in Hermosa Beach (California), works in an administrative capacity for the Rand Corporation, a policy-making, nonprofit think tank. The rest of his time is spent writing stage plays and screenplays.
McGowan graduated from West Virginia University with a BFA in theatre and acting and has been busy writing ever since. The Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice (California), produced four of his plays: Red Shoes, Natural Causes, On the Other End of the Line and Little Walker.
Two other plays—(sophie) [sic.] and Flexible Flier—have been featured in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. He was a finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Contest with Numbered, which also was a finalist in the 2007 Austin Film Festival Screenplay Contest.
Several of McGowan’s screenplays have been produced and recognized. Like Old Times was the official selection of the Austin Film Festival, the Philadelphia Film Festival, and the Nashville Film Festival. Trip and Sloan was the official selection of both the Austin Film Festival and the Omaha Film Festival. A third screenplay, Come in My Office, has completed shooting.
McGowan keeps himself busy as an actor-writer for the Pacific Resident Theatre. He is cofounder, producer and writer for Wee Small Films.
He heard about the FRT competition from an e-zine called The Loop that has a monthly listing of opportunities for playwrights.
“I go through it every month and pick out competitions or play festivals that sound interesting and worthy of the necessary postage it takes to mail out something I’ve written,” McGowan said. “Needless to say, this competition really stuck out, because it included a guaranteed full production of the winning play, where some of the listings are basically just small theaters putting out a call for new plays that they might not even get around to reading.”
McGowan was in disbelief when he found out he was the winner of the Panowski Playwriting Award.
“With any other writing contest or award that I’ve been involved with, first you get some kind of e-mail saying you’ve gotten past the quarter-final round, then you get another one a month later saying you’re in the semi-finals, and so on until the winner is announced,” he said. “I remembered sending in my play, but I had absolutely no idea that it was in the running, much less having a good shot of actually winning. So even though I was flat-out being told over the phone that my play won, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that I didn’t have to wait a couple more months to find out if I really won or not.”
McGowan said it hit him after he hung up, and especially later when he got the e-mail confirming it.
“And then I felt really bad because I thought back to the phone call and thought, ‘Wow, [Panowski] was probably expecting me to scream and jump up and down, and all I did was say ‘Gee, really?’ My celebration was definitely a delayed reaction.”
McGowan was visiting his parents in Pittsburgh when he got the call.
“I got to share the good news immediately,” he said. “They’re very happy. I’m always grateful when something I write has some success mostly because it means my family will have that much more faith that I kind of know what I’m doing. My mother read the play a while back when I first finished it, and she didn’t really get it, but she re-read it after we found out I won and she said, ‘Wow, the rewrites you did really made it a lot clearer!’ And I said, ‘Um, I didn’t do any rewrites.’”
The upcoming academic year marks the thirty-second competition for the Mildred and Albert Panowski Playwriting Award. Beginning with the fourteenth annual competition, Dr. James A. Panowski, director of the Forest Roberts Theatre, has provided financial assistance in memory of his parents.
“The award is designed to encourage and stimulate artistic growth among educational and professional playwrights alike,” Panowski said. “It also provides our students and faculty the unique opportunity to mount and produce an original work. Both the playwright and the director benefit from the summer workshop and input from the dramaturg. And, for a playwright, there is nothing like seeing a fully mounted production of his or her play in front of a live audience.”
Tracks in the Snow runs at 7:30 p.m. from November 12 through 15, with a matinee at 1:00 p.m. on the 15th. For reservations, call 227-2082. The playwright, director and cast will participate in a talk-back session with the audience following each performance.
—James Panowski

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