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One-act play festival
At Heartland Theatre Company's annual one-act play festival, "New Plays from the Heartland," actors read from scripts, but also perform in costume and on sets, a la this moment from 2009's festival featuring Todd Wineburner and Lori Cook Baird. (For The Pantagraph)

NORMAL -- For a dramatic pause or two, it looked like it might be the last act for the annual one-acts at Heartland Theatre Company.

The troupe's "New Plays from the Heartland," a nationally recognized one-act play competition, was approaching its fifth anniversary in 2011 when the curtain prematurely dropped: The town of Normal grant that made it all possible became another victim of the shaky economy.

The word came down that it had been frozen for at least two years.

Happily, longtime Heartland patrons swooped in to save the day, and this weekend's fifth festival on the One Normal Plaza stage is going on as scheduled.

The $2,200 Harmon Arts Grant is what helped make the first festival possible in 2007, and then allowed it to continue and grow in the years since, according to Heartland's Gail Dobbins.

"It takes awhile to get something new like this running, and suddenly the town froze the grant," she says. "They didn't say it's gone forever, but we think it is."

As a testament to the festival's importance to Heartland patrons, a group of "longtime Heartland followers" joined forces to donate $4,000 to this year's event, Dobbins.

With the grant presumed to be permanently gone, patron donations are the only way the festival can continue for the not-for-profit troupe, says Dobbins.

And she is upbeat about the event's future prospects.

The one-act festival is a direct result of Heartland's success with its long-running "Ten-Minute Play Festival," a showcase for even shorter theater pieces that has accrued a national reputation (it returns in June).

The main difference is that the winning plays are presented as so-called "staged readings," meaning the actors are holding scripts in hand.

Dobbins calls it more of "an enhanced staged reading," a reference to the fact that the actors may be holding scripts, but that they are also in costume and performing on fully functional sets, with stage direction and blocking.

The use of scripts is a way to keep costs down via fewer rehearsals and allow the festival's bargain $5 admission, according to Dobbins.

Also a key to the festival, as well its chief expense, is the policy of bringing in a nationally known playwright to judge the finalists and come to Normal to work with the authors.

This year's guest is Ben Viccellio, a Chicago-based actor/playwright with a resume that includes the Goodman Theatre, Cherry Orchard Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

"We've talked about doing it with a local playwright, but we feel like the program would be diminished somehow by not having someone from the outside come in. It's also put us on the map," she adds, hence this year's submissions coming from the festival's designated eight-state Midwestern region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin).

"Usually when grants go away, projects like this go away," Dobbins says. "We have patrons who've stepped up to the plate and rallied other patrons because they feel the quality is high -- and now the festival will be able to continue, not only this year, but into the future."

One-act fest

Following are the events at this year's fifth annual "New Plays from the Heartland" one-act play competition at Heartland Theater Company in Normal. The winning plays -- all tied to the designated theme of "I thought it would be simple!" -- are "Buck Naked," by Gloria Bond Clunie, Evanston; "Keeping the Words," by Terry Ryburn, Normal; and "The Dock," by Stephen Peirick, St. Louis.

• Tonight, 7:30 p.m.: The festival's guest playwright and final judge, Ben Viccellio, hosts an open public forum on the art of playwriting. Admission is free.

• Friday, 7:30 p.m.: The three winning plays are performed, with Viccellio and playwrights Peirick and Ryburn in attendance, followed by a response to the plays from Viccellio and an open reception. Admission is $5.

• Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: The three winning plays are performed, with playwrights Clunie and Ryburn in attendance, followed by a talk-back with the authors, sponsors, actors and director. Admission is $5.

• Note: Reservations are recommended, either by calling the Heartland box office at 309-452-8709 or emailing

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