Three weeks ago, Eli Clark ’07 nearly broke down completely trying to finish writing her play, “Breakfast,” a one-act she describes as a “crazy manic whirlwind tour.”
The resulting one-act tackles Jesus, Woody Allen and figure skating and will premiere this weekend at the 2005 Yale Playwrights Festival, a series of staged readings of seven plays by Yale undergraduates, polished with help from playwriting luminaries (Rolin Jones, Clark’s mentor, wrote “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater earlier this year) and directed by other undergraduates.
Toni Dorfman, the director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies Department and the producer of the festival, explains that the program, which was started in 2003 and gives writers a chance to test their plays in front of an audience, fosters an often intense relationship between mentors — who have included Pulitzer Prize winners Edward Albee, David Auburn and Donald Margulies — and aspiring playwrights.
Zoe Kazan ’05, whose “Stranger” deals with the breakdown of a young suburban mother, likens the mentoring process to learning to ride a bicycle.
“You are the one driving the bike, but there are two people on either side of you helping you out and supporting you if necessary so that you can eventually do it by yourself,” she said.
Another reason the festival is so special: It helps non-theater studies majors break into what Amia Srinivasan ’07 calls a “community so intense that it tends to be insular.”
“Ultimately, there’s something tremendous about having your words read aloud, especially for non-theater studies majors,” said Srinivasan, whose “Drought” takes place over the course of a dinner in which four Upper West Side characters tackle questions of logic, induction and trade-offs drawn from the philosophy major’s own courses.
The plays chosen are an eclectic bunch, Dorfman said; the playwrights “draw from all kinds of sources.”
A case in point: Colette Gunn-Graffy’s ’05 “By Any Other Name” took as its starting point her musings about motherhood and spirals outward into a play about identity and the extent to which labels define who we are.
“I was just thinking whether I would be just as happy to be an aunt and be able to get the kids at all the good times without the responsibility,” said Gunn-Graffy, whose relationship with her 10-year-old younger sister also factored into the work. “What I ended up with was written the weekend before it was due in some weird hallucinatory state in the wee, wee hours of the morning.”
Patrick Huguenin ’06 also thinks understanding the revision process is a big part of the festival. As an English and theater studies double major, Huguenin says he has produced a lot of first drafts — courses at Yale tend to focus on getting the play onto paper — but rarely followed up on his pieces. Huguenin’s “The Death of Julia Child: A Mo comes home to Mama” is an imagined autobiography of his family and centers on a protagonist who returns home as an adult only to discover that his childhood was never what he thought it was.
Huguenin, who participated in last year’s festival, sees building up a network of influential contacts as an integral part of the process. He is planning to e-mail his final play to Albee, who was his mentor last year, and his current adviser Robert Blacker, who ran the Sundance Theater Lab.
One major difference between the 2004 Festival and this year’s event, he says, is the shorter time frame.
“It feels a lot more — I won’t say frenetic, but at least energized,” he said, explaining that the rehearsal process, in which Dorfman pairs up each playwright with an undergraduate director who casts the show and organizes a maximum of four hours of rehearsal, is always hectic.
Lisa Siciliano ’05, who wrote “Bacciare e Ballare” as part of her senior project and insisted on continuing the revision process until she could include Camille Saint-Saens’s cello piece “Swan” in the show, based her project on the story of how her grandparents met during World War II.
“The final product, though, is something I might not necessarily want to show my grandparents,” she said.
Dorfman pointed out the importance of Yale student attendance, whom the playwrights all want to see their work.
“The quality of listening of a Yale audience is amazing,” she said. “Instead of air in the room, it feels like a kind of deeper and denser medium, like well water at night — the quality of the concentration, the understanding of the audience of what is funny, the susceptibility of them to be moved — it’s gold!”
Whatever happens this weekend, Dorfman thinks the festival is already a success in at least one way.
“If we can get these very talented young writers to think of themselves as playwrights, we’ve done something for the future of American theater,” she said.