Festival assists Eli playwrights

The material is fresh, the production values nonexistent and the feedback swift. From surprise lesbian kisses to elementary-school students with aspirations to puppy-hood, the plots and characters featured in undergraduate plays had the opportunity this weekend to try their luck in front of an audience.

The fifth-annual incarnation of the Yale Playwrights Festival, which featured plays written by Yale students from all class years, was hosted at the New Theater on Friday and Saturday. In the intensive incubator of the Yale Playwrights Festival, professional mentors — including Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez — work with selected undergraduates and faculty mentors to add a practical side to the more theory-oriented theater studies major.

The festival does not use props, a set or blocking as a fully staged play would. Instead, the performances focus on the playwrights’ words rather than other aspects of theater.

Toni Dorfman, director of undergraduate studies for theater studies, said the festival’s main strength is that it allows the playwrights — not the staging or acting — to be the main focus of the event.

“The whole thing is that the focus is not on the mentors — it is on the writers,” Dorfman said. “It is a chance for writers to have a lot of attention.”

After each performance, the audience was encouraged to ask questions and give advice to the playwright. William Alden ’10, who was one of the five playwrights included in the festival, said the opportunity to hear comments from both his mentors and the audience after the show was among the festival’s greatest strengths.

“It was very helpful having a staged reading — plays are meant to be heard,” Alden said. “The act of hearing it made me hear places that didn’t work. Some of the comments from the audience were very helpful.”

Theater studies professor Deborah Margolin, who was a mentor for Alden, said she finds her greatest joy in the program when she watches the playwright during the reading.

“I often look at the author, and you see the light coming from that person’s face — joy and embarrassment and pleasure,” she said. “I love watching our students take pride and be educated at once.”

Ethan Heard ’07, who directed “Ching Chong Chinaman” by Lauren Yee ’07, said he enjoyed the process of assembling an ideal cast and assisting the playwright in bringing her play to life.

“There is something magical about witnessing a play being born — seeing and hearing it rise off the page, into the actors, out to the audience, out to the world,” he said.

Alden said simply having another person read his work was very helpful because he had become too close and emotionally invested in his play to step back and judge it objectively.

While Margolin is happy with the festival’s achievements, she said she would like to have more time with the student playwrights in order to work more extensively on their scripts.

“I guess I would like the leisure of more time to be helpful to the playwright with whom I am working and the leisure of more time to be in contact with the other mentor,” Margolin said. “It takes place over a very short time, which is a good time, but I wish I had more time with the playwright.”

Margolin also said she wishes the festival could include more plays. Only five playwrights were selected this year, while the applicant pool has ranged from 28 to 38 applicants throughout the festival’s history.

Dorfman said she got the idea for the festival when teaching a playwright-director class in the fall of 2002. In the past, plays that were read in the festival — including Eli Clark ’07’s “Metaphysics of Breakfast” and Liz Meriwether ’04’s “Nicky Goes Goth” — have gone on to have full productions in other venues.

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