Amplify Series Two

Amplify Series Two finalists. Top row, left to right: Julian Parker, Bri Ramirez, Ahon Goopta, Khameron Riley. Bottom row, left to right: Walker Lee, Reynaldo Dumas, Melda Beaty, Tina Fakhid-Deen.

In 2021, when Definition Theatre inaugurated Amplify, its new play commissioning program, theaters were still deep in pandemic-induced lockdowns. Adapting to this new reality, excerpts from the program’s eight plays were filmed and presented online, along with pre-recorded Zoom introductions from the playwrights and interviews with them guided by artistic director Tyrone Phillips.

Fast-forward to this weekend (Aug. 13 and 14), and the Amplify Series Two Festival will be held in-person at the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts, 915 E. 60th St. It's expected to be a greatly amplified version of what Phillips calls "an initiative that's not like any other." 

“During the lockdown, we grappled with whether theater has to be live,” Phillips explained. “Then we decided that film could be used to further theater, which would help support the artists and enable us to get audience responses. After the first Amplify, we found that even the playwrights whose work wasn't selected for more development were grateful to have taped samples they could use elsewhere.”

This year, scenes from eight new plays—whittled down from 29 submissions—have been recorded and will be screened at the Logan Center, accompanied by a host of live activities around them. Each work will have three screenings, all followed by talk-backs with a different playwright, director or actor, all of which focus on the theme of reunion and coming together. Pre- and post-screening parties are on the bill, along with free workshops on playwriting, acting, dance and motion open to anyone in the community (registration required).

Sunday's schedule also includes a Woodlawn community clean-up that starts at 6400 S. Cottage Grove Ave., the lot on which Definition's brand-new theater will soon rise. 

“We want people to be able to visualize where it will be,” Phillips said. He added that plans are to break ground within a year and be up and running by the end of 2024. “We've raised about 40% of the capital needed,” he estimated. 

One long-standing goal has been to present a fully staged reading of one of the four winners of the first Amplify, which celebrated joy and staying connected, as part of the new theater's inaugural season. While the clear favorite from last year's hundreds of returned audience surveys was “The Waiting Room,” playwright Erica Faye Watson died during the pandemic—her unfinished work received an honorable mention.

The four 2021 winners were “Corazones” by Luna Dragon Mac-Williams, “What a Time to be Alive (You Say That Every Time)” by Paul Michael Thomson, “Lot 110” by Nora Carroll and  “are you ready to smash white things?” by Ireon Roach. So far, each play has gotten a week-long workshop, and two have had a second workshop. 

Rather than waiting for the new theater, Phillips has slated “What a Time to be Alive (You Say That Every Time)” for a staged reading this year, likely this Sunday. With Phillips directing, the cast will include ensemble members Christopher Sheard, Danielle Davis and Martasia Jones.

Phillips noted that next year's Amplify will also have staged readings of all four 2022 winners. 

The eight contenders this year are “Thirty” by Melda Beaty, “Seasons of Love” by Ahon Gooptu, “Mild Support” by Reynaldo Dumas, “Salsa, A Slow Death” by Brianna Yrene Ramirez, “In the Back” by ensemble member Julian Parker, “Black Table Talk” by Khameron Townsend-Riley, “Black Bone” by Tina Fakhrid-Deen and “Word Is Born” by Walker Lee.

Phillips directed “In the Back” and “Mild Support.” The other directors include Alana Arenas and Chuck Smith. “Only one actor is an ensemble member, the rest are new artists we're excited to work with,” Phillips said. 

Like last year, the plays were chosen by the Definition ensemble after an open submissions period, and were filmed at the U. of C.'s Green Line Performing Arts Center, 329 E. Garfield Blvd. 

“We also learned that we needed to augment our film team,” Phillips said. “Last year, Lowell Thomas did it all, but this year we're collaborating with Transit Productions, one of our sponsors.” In addition, Definition is talking with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) to facilitate using some union actors this year and even more next year.

As in the past, screenings are pay what you can, but this time audience members will be able to vote on their favorites immediately. Phillips added that the festival may add online screenings and email surveys for remote attendees.

Those who do come will, as a bonus, get to check out the Definition Innovator Pop-Up Shop featuring entrepreneurs Kelley Moseley (K-FLEYE), Jasmine Traylor (Of the Mother Wellness), Angelique Warner (A Warner Idea), Donnell Spencer (Relax & Be), Angelica Acebedo-Frint (MAGN.FICO Coffee) and Marquan Jones (Un.original).

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