Local Tony nominee hopes to bolster theater scene with a new festival

Gahanna native Mike Faist earned a 2017 Tony nomination playing Connor, a friend of the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Correction: The title character claims him as his friend, but it's only a fiction Evan creates to deal with his social anxiety.

Offstage, Faist seems to have found an actual friend in Columbus investor Mike Schiff. Even though the two have barely met, Schiff is going out of his way to promote a forthcoming project that Faist is planning in Central Ohio. And it's all due to an event that never happened.

In March, Schiff arranged to take two busloads of students from KIPP Columbus charter school to Broadway to see “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical he'd already watched four times. “I like the show,” Schiff says, an obvious understatement. Realizing the kids would enjoy meeting a hometown celebrity, Schiff contacted Faist's agent and set up a Q&A session with the actor following the performance.

It was a good idea, but it fell through. Not only did a snowstorm trap the buses in Columbus, but after four years of playing Connor, Faist subsequently decided to end his run with the show. However, the failed effort only brought the men closer, as they attempted to make up for the lost opportunity and eventually became friends.

As a result, Schiff has made it his mission to help spread the news about the Ohio Artists Gathering, a theater festival Faist is working to launch in Columbus. “He wants to make Columbus more of a hub for theater,” Schiff says.

That seems like an optimistic goal, but Faist's description of the event sounds even more ambitious. “It's a one-week playwrights festival,” he says, “where we all get together and create new works and kind of bridge some gaps that are existent within the Columbus community, and hopefully the New York community as well.” In short, Faist explains, he wants to create links between local theater folks and their Broadway counterparts.

Perhaps the grandest view of the project's potential is held by P. Tim Valentine, executive director of the Short North Stage, which is serving as the host for the Ohio Artists Gathering. Valentine hopes it will become an annual event that eventually rivals that granddaddy of new-play celebrations, the Humana Festival in Louisville. “Everything has to have a start,” he says.

Why hold the festival in Columbus? Faist says the city offers established playwrights a good place “to escape and work on their projects that's outside [New York's] critical eye.” The actor, who performed with Columbus Children's Theatre and other local troupes before leaving for Broadway at the age of 17, adds that he wants to show New Yorkers “what Columbus has to offer—and what it's offered me growing up in this safe, nurturing environment with people who are interested and who care.”

The Ohio Artists Gathering will be held Aug. 27–31 at the Short North Stage's Garden Theater. The festival will include workshops, open rehearsals, meet-the-artist events and premieres of new works, including a one-man play written by Asa Somers and starring Faist. Regardless of the event's initial success, one thing is certain: Mike Schiff will be in the audience. ohioartistsgathering.com

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