Courtesy of Olivia Facini

On Saturday, a sparsely decorated Off Broadway Theatre — containing only wooden chairs and music stands — came to life at the 17th annual Yale Playwrights Festival.

Organized by former Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Theater Studies Department Toni Dorfman, the Festival featured five student-written plays and was an opportunity for undergraduate playwrights to work with professional working writers from Yale and elsewhere. The experience culminated in a rehearsed reading of the finished plays.

“At Yale we not only have brilliant writers — articulate, passionate, idealistic, brave, imaginative and above all, emphatic — who have important stories they have to tell,” said Dorfman. “But we also have brilliant playwrights on the faculty who have devoted their lives to theatre with whom the young writers can study and learn from.”

The Festival began in 2002. Dorfman was a newer faculty member when one of her students, Laura Jackman, expressed concerns about the greater number of opportunities on campus for actors and directors compared to playwrights. This conversation led to the pair’s collaboration to establish the Festival — an event Dorfman said she never expected would become an annual tradition. After Jackman graduated, Dorfman described the “clamor” from other undergraduate playwrights to continue the Festival.

Applications to the festival were open to all undergraduates. Out of the 49 applications submitted this year, a panel of a dozen professional playwrights and directors selected five plays, Dorfman said. The submission could be a “work in progress,” and Dorfman said that she had only one criterion for selection: the presence of “life in the play.”

This year’s Festival featured the work of Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19, Abbey Burgess ’19, Raffi Donatich ’20, Alexis Payne ’19 — who goes by a.k. payne — and Olivia Facini ’19.

Burgess described participating in the Festival as a “really positive experience.” Working and receiving feedback from mentors and seeing her play read aloud gave her different perspectives on her work, she said.

“Seeing everything read out loud gave me insight into where to go,” Burgess explained. “I’m really excited to see where I can take [the play] from here.”

In addition to selecting writers to participate in the Festival, Dorfman also chooses directors who cast readers to perform the plays in consultation with the playwrights. She mentioned the importance of choosing a director who was compatible with the playwright, as the writing process comprises the “entire heart of the festival.”

“For the first time, the playwright sits in the audience and sees the world that he, she or they, have created, distilled, made come true in their minds and then, everybody else in the theatre has been living in that world too,” Dorfman said.

Facini said she was excited to be a part of the first Festival with all female playwrights. She said that despite having different styles and interests, the five playwrights’ voices came together in an interesting manner.

Over the years, the number of applications to the Festival has increased. Dorfman said that Yale is probably the “most encouraging” place for theatre because of the creative arts grants and numerous rehearsal spaces on campus. She added that the Dramat, which used to solely focus on full productions, has begun to integrate student-written works into their seasons. Dorfman said that Yale’s robust theatre scene made inviting mentors easier — the plays of Yale students promise to be “exciting” and “so encouraging.”

“Theater is one of our most powerful mediums to create change and tell certain stories,” said Burgess, “and if we’re not seeing the stories we want to see on stage, then we have to write them.”

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu