New Play Festival puts playwrights center stage

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Sophia Brown (sophomore) and Daniele Manzin ‘09 rehearse for the performance of “Tragedy + Time” in Keck Theater at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. Nora Fujita-Yuhas/The Occidental

The Occidental community filled Keck Theater Feb. 23–25 to watch student-written plays as part of the 20th annual New Play Festival. Student playwrights paired with guest directors, student actors and guest actors to actively collaborate on plays during both preproduction and in performance. For the 20th anniversary of the festival, all the guest directors and actors were Occidental alumni, according to the event webpage.

The New Play Festival featured five plays this year: “Blue Sky State” by Arianna Nord (senior), “Out of the Woods” by Kylie Brakeman (senior), “Tom Flackford’s Death Party” by Richard Henry Via (junior), “Tragedy + Time” by Greg Feiner* (senior) and “Play Pretend” by Eliana Sternin (junior). Additionally, Feb. 25 featured “20 Tiny Plays by 20 Big Alums,” a compilation of plays that were a few minutes long and written by 20 alumni writers.

According to Laural Meade, festival director and professor in the theater department, the staged readings were not meant to be finished products but instead are a way to help the writer see further story possibilities. After each performance, the audience engaged in a conversation with the playwright. The audience then asked questions about the story, mentioned significant moments they were drawn to and praised the playwright’s work.

“The playwrights are really front and center, they are really the leaders of the whole thing,” Meade said.

According to Meade, she was asked to teach and revamp the previous student-run play festival when she joined the faculty 20 years ago. Meade said that student-run productions are valuable, but for the New Play Festival, the theater department wanted the playwrights to have the opportunity to collaborate with off-campus professionals.

“We really to try to make a writer-centric experience, which is about surrounding the writer with really great collaborators, students and professionals, people who are there to help them figure out their vision,” Meade said.

Pat Lentz rehearses a scene with Helena Oldenbourg ‘17 for the performance of “Blue Sky State” in Keck Theater at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Nora Fujita-Yuhas/The Occidental

According to Meade, any Occidental student can submit a play at the end of the fall semester. The submitted plays are then read by a faculty group after the new year. After the final plays are selected, the playwrights have a series of three rehearsals to hear notes from Meade, actors, directors and dramaturgs and then rewrite or restructure sections of their play.

“[The playwrights] get a lot of input and one thing we have to negotiate is to make sure that there are not too many cooks in the kitchen,” Meade said.

Sternin said that in the three weeks of rehearsals and notes, she restructured her play twice.

“I feel like it’s a lot more cohesive now than it used to be and over time you learn what exactly you want to say in every scene,” Sternin said.

The director and cast of “Blue Sky State” go over script edits in Keck Theater at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Nora Fujita-Yuhas/The Occidental

Last semester, Meade taught Theater 380: Playwriting. According to Via, who took Meade’s playwriting class, the revision process was an important part of his experience in the class.

“I was writing a very serious play about two childhood friends who fell in love and broke up,” Via said. “It was around Nov. 1 and our whole draft was due Nov. 8 and Laural said, ‘Richard, this just isn’t you.’”

Via said in seven days, he rewrote his play into a sex farce that centers a gay love triangle between high school friends at a funeral. As a playwright, Via hopes that the audience laughs and enjoys themselves.

“I don’t want people to go into my play [thinking] this is going to be some profound artistic experience. I want people to sit down and just enjoy themselves for 55 minutes. I want them to find a joke. I want them to relate to a character,” Via said.

Experienced alumni directors collaborated with the playwrights to give notes and help the plays evolve. Nord worked with director Alan Freeman (’66).

“[He] pushes me on ideas while also being respectful about my choices,” Nord said. “We encourage the actors to be vocal about preferences they have too, as they get to know the characters they’re the ones speaking the lines, they have really good instincts.”

*Greg Feiner is a section editor for The Occidental.