Stephens music professor debuts as playwright in weekend festival

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It was 10 p.m. on a mid-November night in 1999, and Trent Rash was still in The Maneater newsroom.

He had gotten there at 1 p.m. and still hadn’t eaten. When he finally left, all the dining halls were closed.

It was while eating cold cereal later that night that Rash, then a freshman at the MU School of Journalism, decided: “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to have this life.”

Rash, 36, changed his major to music education, and today he is an assistant professor of music and musical theater at Stephens College.

He is one of the three playwrights participating in this weekend’s Starting Gate New Play Festival, organized by Talking Horse Productions. Rash will present two 10-minute plays inspired by this year’s prompt: earth and sky. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday at the Talking Horse Theatre, 210 St. James St.

His first play, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a historical drama about three women who lost their significant others in the Titanic shipwreck. His second, “The Sky’s the Limit” is more lighthearted: a comedy about a boy named Sky who discovers a comic book about him has gone viral.

This is the third edition of the festival, which started in 2015. Its purpose is to provide a platform for new work in Columbia, and the playwrights are chosen by a three-person committee among the talent pool in town.

”We keep it local,” said Russ Scott, managing director at the festival.

Earth and sky

Rash is a self-proclaimed Titanic aficionado.

“I’ve done a lot of reading,” he said. “It’s just a very fascinating situation where people thought they had conquered the seas and that they havd built an unsinkable ship and then on its first voyage it sinks.”

Rash said the earth-and-sky prompt almost scared him away, but once he connected the dots, ideas began to flow.

“The title just came,” he said. “This one meant that the earth stood still for a lot of people.”

The historical drama, directed by Katie Hays , follows three women who lost their significant others on the ship. They are all trying to process the tragedy, seeking justice for the memories of the men they loved.

Meeting in the office of the White Star Line, they are at first distant because of their differences but discover similarities in their situation and draw strength from each other.

“Even in tragic circumstances, we can be united and help each other to move forward,” Rash said. “I can say that right now that’s something that’s important.”

Resilience and female empowerment are two important values for Rash: “Being a professor in a women’s college, it was important for me to write something that was all women.”

Although the word “sky” had a lighter meaning for him, the writing was more challenging. “The comedy was a lot harder,” he admitted.

“I forced it at first. I tried to write about something I didn’t know,” he said. “The second time I wrote about a mom, a dad and a kid, and I’m a dad, so I knew that.”

The play is about the son of two astronomers whose name is Sky, which mortifies the boy. He had gained notoriety because of the comic book, but his parents make him understand that it’s not the end of the world.

If there was a rocky start, it certainly didn’t seem so in the first rehearsal. Laughter filled PACE Youth Theatre during the first read of the script, a good sign.

“Trent’s great,” said Kathleen Johnson, the play’s director. “I trust him as an artist. I agreed in a heartbeat.”

New beginnings

Rash has been singing since high school, where he was part of the chorus, and he performed in operas during college as a tenor.

When he came back to Columbia in 2006 after working in Chicago, he began his master’s degree in vocal performance at MU and began to teach voice lessons at Stephens College .

There, students performed more musicals than operas. Slowly but surely, a new path toward theater was being carved.

It 2013 Rash paired up with Audra Sergel, a musician and an old friend, and together they assembled a musical “Starting with my Voice.”

They were selected to perform in the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted to expand their 55-minute piece into a two-act musical, which they presented in 2015.

Rash thought it was a little “rough around the edges” and was certain he could improve his playwrighting skills. He contacted a friend on the board of Talking Horse Productions and asked to be considered for the upcoming festival.

“I needed for someone to give me some deadlines,” he said.

It was just a small suggestion, but in April, Rash received an email asking him if he would like to participate. He said yes right away.

At the festival this weekend, all six plays by the three local playwrights will be presented all three days at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

No regrets

Growing up in Shelbina, Missouri, Rash was almost always involved in the arts. He played the trombone at the school band and sang at the choir.

After graduating from MU, Rash and his wife moved to Chicago in 2004 . While she danced at a dance company, Rash had what he calls “odd jobs” at a container store and as a professional organizer.

In the meantime, he took an online class in short story writing. He also started auditioning, although with little success.

“There were a lot of skills I didn’t have,” he said. “I tell my students that I am a really good teacher to teach auditioning because I did so terribly that I know what to do.”

None of that discouraged him. He began taking classes with a faculty member at Roosevelt University in Chicago and was accepted into the opera program but decided against it.

This year’s festival may mean a new phase in Rash’s career. He’s considering a master’s degree in theater.

“I have a real love for theater and it’s really growing, and I am getting encouraged,” he said.

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