Student playwrights seek to produce work

Over the weekend, Yalies wanting to see a campus production could choose between the Freshman Show, “Laughing Stock,” and two student-written shows, “An Animorphs Musical” and “With Kings in the Back.” From script to stage, student playwrights can be involved in every aspect of a production. Staff reporter Vivian Yee investigates.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” never found out what was the matter with old Jane Gallagher, a girl he got close to “necking” one summer in Maine. Half a century later, Tessa Williams ’10 decided to explore what happened to Jane Gallagher by writing her own play, “With Kings in the Back,” which was performed this past weekend at Nick Chapel Theater in Trumbull College.

Although Yale’s performance venues usually host multiple plays and musicals on any given weekend, shows written by students are less common, both because of the limited number of scripts coming from student playwrights and the risk of producing a new work. When their plays do make it to the stage, however, student playwrights say they enjoy the creative freedom that comes with being able to participate in the production.

“You can do a lot more of what you want, explore more,” Williams said. “You can be much more involved.”

This semester will be an especially fruitful one for student playwrights. In addition to the two this past weekend, at least four more student-written shows, in addition to 15 professional plays and musicals, are scheduled for performances later this semester, according to the Yale Drama Coalition’s Web site.

The YDC’s outgoing co-president, Michael Leibenluft ’10, said there are more student-written shows than usual this semester.

Williams, who wrote “With Kings in the Back” last spring as the culminating assignment for Donald Margulies’ advanced playwriting workshop, knew she wanted to have the play performed as soon as she finished writing it last May. Enlisting Marshall Pailet ’09, whom she had met working on the Yale Dramat’s annual commencement show, as her director, Williams embarked on almost a year of revisions and readings with friends and teachers.

By last October, Williams had settled on a final draft, her fifth, and held a reading on campus with potential actors. After she and Pailet chose a cast through pre-casting and auditions, they began holding rehearsals.

But because they both also wanted to respect Williams’ own creative vision, she sat in on rehearsals and would sometimes pull Pailet aside to make a suggestion.

“It helped a lot to have Tessa there, because it’s her vision,” Mila Hursey ’12, the play’s producer, said. “It’s never been done before, so you have to make decisions about how it’s going to go.”

Like “With Kings in the Back,” many student-written shows start out with a student playwright who assembles a team to produce the script. In other cases, small groups of students collaborate on a script and go on to produce it, as with the “Animorphs” musical, which was written by Jonathan Sandor Goldman ’09, Spencer Stackhouse ’09, Michelle Schorn ’09 and Nozlee Samadzadeh-Hadidi ’10.

Whether a show originates from a single playwright or a group, it must find funding and a space. Williams submitted her play for the Dramat’s spring experimental show, hoping for the $2,000 budget, administrative help and technical resources the organization would provide, but was turned down. The Dramat used to stage student work — it produced the work of Robert Lopez ’97, who wrote the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q,” when he was at Yale — but has not done in recent years, so the refusal did not come as a surprise, she said.

“It’s a lot harder to judge the quality of a student-written play,” said Will Alden ’10, whose play “Home Land” was turned down by The Dramat but will be performed in early April. “It’s much more of a risk. I actually think a lot of student-written plays are really popular among other students because it hasn’t been seen before.” (Alden is an Arts & Living editor for the News.)

To mount an independent production, student-written or not, production teams usually apply for a Sudler Fund performance grant of $1,200, which is administered by each residential college master’s office. Keeping costumes and sets to a minimum helps each production stay within budget, and the production does not have to pay for the rights to the script. Finally, the production has to apply for a theater, such as the Off-Broadway Theater or Nick Chapel.

With the Dramat, “you really feel like you’re doing professional theater, which is scary but wonderful,” Williams said. “But the general consensus is, doing a show [independently] is more laid-back.”

To encourage more student playwrights to produce their own scripts, the YDC holds a 24-hour theater festival once or twice a year to showcase student work, Leibenluft said.

The Theater Studies Department holds a festival every April in which student playwrights are paired with professional playwrights who help the students stage readings of their work.

Comments

  • Toe tuck me

    Kudos to Kyle Wallack for really being the glue that is helping this team stick together and get it done!

  • Robert Lopez

    I have to say, I've been really impressed lately when I come back to Yale with the level of talent and the amount of activity from student writers and composers. When I was at Yale, there was much less activity.

    I do take issue with the notion expressed in the article that it is risky for college students to perform student written work! I encountered that bias when I was at Yale too, and found it frustrating.

    What exactly is this risk? Compared with commercial theater, where investors hope for a return, there's really no monetary risk at all.

    Or is it an artistic risk? The risk of artistic failure -- of spending time on a show that isn't great? There are many benefits and lessons to be learned from participating in the creative process of a flawed new work which you don't get from working on a classic show.

    Robert Lopez JE '97