One-Act Play Festival probes shopping mall

It’s unclear whether springtime has come yet to New Haven, but just as flowers bloom and eggs hatch under the warm sun, three one-act plays written by the three first-year playwrights in the Yale School of Drama are now exploding into full, pulsating life at the Studio Theatre. The event is the Thornton Wilder Festival of One-Act Plays, and the plays represent the culmination of these students’ work over the past academic year. Since a playwright’s work can only be fully appreciated when performed, the Wilder Festival will allow these Yale playwrights to see just what it is they have created.

Now in its third year, the festival is a part of the YSD Studio Series, a string of nine free productions that run on a smaller scale than the more publicized YSD Series (which this year has included “Baal,” “Ghost Sonata,” and “Peer Gynt”). The 2007-’08 season represents the first time the Studio Series performances have been open to the general public, and according to Stephanie Ybarra DRA ’08, the associate managing director for the YSD and the producer of the Wilder Festival, the audience response to the Studio Series over the past several months has been overwhelmingly positive.

“This is some of the most exciting work at the school,” Ybarra said in an e-mail. “We’re thrilled to share it with a broader audience.”

The Thornton Wilder Festival also showcases the work of the three first-year directors in the Drama School, each of whom was assigned to work with a playwright to bring a script to the stage. With three and a half weeks of rehearsal and a tiny budget (roughly $75 — just enough for a prop or two), the directors and playwrights have had to innovate. The result is a “very bare bones” production, as Playwriting Chair Richard Nelson said.

The sheer newness of the plays makes the festival an exhilarating experience for everyone involved. First-year playwrights in the YSD write a one-act by year’s end, while second-year students write a 60-minute piece and third-year students complete a full-length. Though the three first-year playwrights have written and in some cases produced plays before, this festival will mark their first full production as Yale Drama students.

The excitement among playwrights and directors is running high. Jesse Jou DRA ’10, the director of Michael Mitnick’s DRA ’10 play “Learning Russian,” saw this festival as a defining moment in his professional life.

“The biggest thing for me about being a part of the Thornton Wilder Festival is the chance to collaborate with a new voice in the American theatre,” Jou said in an e-mail. “I hope that the artists involved in the festival will be people I’ll get to work with many times throughout my career.”

Though no theme or idea unifies the three plays in the festival, each of the playwrights explores issues of great personal significance. Susan Stanton DRA ’10, who wrote “The Art of Preservation,” said that her play deals with the passing-on of cultural tradition. The characters are two people who grew up in the same town in Kauai, but haven’t spoken to each other until one stormy night when they are trapped in a library basement. Stanton said she had been thinking about the play for a year before writing it, composing scenes that would ultimately be cut but which allowed her to better understand the world of drama.

“I actually wrote a lot of scenes about the town and scenes with different characters within the town,” Stanton said. “In the end, my play is only two people, but I feel like that work enriched the play, and all of the outside characters they refer to feel more real.”

Kim Rosenstock DRA ’10, who wrote “Lone Pilots of Roosevelt Field,” also dealt with a personal issue in her work — the shopping mall. Her play explores what happens when a young female marine pilot ready to ship off to war gets a phone call from a man back home, and she must return to her native Long Island to wait for the man in a shopping mall. Rosenstock said she wanted to tell a deeply serious story in the most comic of settings.

“In general the mall culture especially is one that is close to my heart,” she said in an e-mail. “I’m fascinated by the people who just go there because there’s nothing else to do, they don’t buy anything, they don’t have a destination, they’re just killing time.”

For all the playwrights, these performances will be an invaluable learning experience. They have each spent the entire year working on these plays, and now they will finally see how their work stands up in a performance. All the playwrights said that to truly understand your own play, you must see it live in a theater and judge the audience’s response.

“At the end of the day, there’s only so long you can go just staring at your computer, alone, laughing at your own jokes, and playing all of the parts yourself,” Rosenstock said. “You start to feel like a crazy person.”

The Wilder Festival opened Thursday at 4:00, it plays Friday at 3:30 and 8:00, and it closes Saturday at 4:00. The performances are all sold out, but for the diehard fan, there will also be a performance this Sunday at the Flea Theater in New York City.

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