Festival helps undergraduate playwrights

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Photo by Stephanie Addenbrooke.

This past weekend, students, professors and professional playwrights gathered at the Yale Repertory Theatre to celebrate the original work of five undergraduates.

Five student-written plays were chosen from dozens of submissions to be performed as dramatic readings at the festival, and the cast of each play was given only four hours to rehearse the script with the director before the final performance. Students and faculty members interviewed said the Yale Playwrights Festival’s primary purpose is to provide playwrights with feedback on their plays before the plays are staged as complete productions. Theater Studies professor Toni Dorfman, who has organized the festival every year since its establishment in 2003, noted that the short rehearsal time and lack of visual design elements force the audience to focus on the quality of the script itself.

“A good script does not need a lot of rehearsal time,” Dorfman said. “It also doesn’t need costumes, lighting, a set or props.”

Each play’s reading was immediately followed by a “talk back” session in which the playwright discussed the play with his or her mentors, the director and the audience, said Lara Panah-Izadi ’15, whose play “In This World” was performed at the festival. She added that during the two months leading up to the event, all the playwrights featured work closely with mentors, all professionals in their field, on revising their plays’ scripts.

Dorfman said the festival also allows students who want to pursue careers in theater to build their network of contacts within the performing arts community, noting that one of the two mentors assigned to each featured student playwright is a professional in the theater field. She explained that these mentors have close connections to many theaters and artistic directors from across the country, which may be useful for student playwrights who wish to stage their work professionally after graduation. Yale School of Drama professor Paul Walsh, who served as a faculty mentor to Noam Shapiro ’15 this year, noted that professional theater managers frequently host and attend dramatic readings of plays — a process that helps them choose which plays they wish to stage.

Four students who participated in this year’s festival all noted that having a play read at the event is only one step in the larger process of turning a script into a full-fledged production. Abigail Carney ’15, a magazine editor for the News, directed the play “Dino’s Auto Empire” by Tia Ginakakis ’15. She said playwrights are generally eager to have their work read because certain parts of the script that work well on paper may sound incoherent or unappealing when performed on stage.

“When you are just typing up your play on a computer, it’s hard to understand how the play moves and feels,” Carney said. “Until you have actual actors in the room, you won’t know whether the characters’ interactions work well or how the audience will react.”

Theater Studies professor Deborah Margolin, who has been a faculty mentor for the festival every year since it was founded, added that many of the featured plays are not even finished at the time they are selected to be read, noting that she once mentored a student who had written only one act of her play when it was chosen by the committee. Dorfman said that in order to provide the playwrights with more guidance, the festival’s selection committee looks specifically for plays that are not fully ready to be produced at the time of submission.

Margolin and Dorfman said the Playwrights Festival is one of several initiatives established within the past decade that provides opportunities for aspiring playwrights to showcase their work at Yale. Dorfman said that while she co-founded the festival with Laura Jacqmin ’04 in 2003 because they believed there was a lack of such opportunities at the time, events such as the Playwrights Festival and the Yale Drama Coalition’s “24 Hour Theater Festival” have greatly contributed to fostering student-written theater on campus.

The next undergraduate student-written play to be staged at Yale is “Dry Land” by Ruby Spiegel ’15.

Correction: March 5

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the mentors as “faculty mentors,” when in fact only half the mentors also teach at Yale. 

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