Courtesy of Yale Playwright Festival

Over 20 years ago, theater and performance studies professor Toni Dorfman listened to Laura Jacqmin ’04, a student in her class, express a frustration — there weren’t enough opportunities for student playwrights’ voices to be heard. For Dorfman, who recognized an “amazing level of talent” at Yale, this posed a problem that she was determined to alleviate. 

In 2002, Dorfmann and Jacqmin co-created Yale’s first playwriting festival, an annual event where selected playwrights could have their works read aloud to the Yale community. This year, the festival will be held on March 5, featuring four play readings at the Off-Broadway Theatre. This is the festival’s 23rd iteration, and Dorfman “has passed the torch” of producing the event to theater and performance studies professor Deborah Margolin. 

“That’s the beauty of this festival, it gives playwrights a chance to hear their work,” Margolin said. “When you feel an audience’s reaction to a play, it changes your relationship to what you’re doing.”

The deadline for script submission was on Nov. 29, 2022 and called for “previously unproduced works in progress.” 

Hank Graham ’24 — the playwright of the featured play “The Mourning Show ” — said the festival’s emphasis on constant revision of writing was “freeing” for him and a departure from the fixation of finished products. 

“There’s a lot of emphasis [at Yale] on the final product and putting on a final show,” Graham said. “I really wish there were more opportunities for playwrights to have their work heard without having to do the full production… sometimes you just want to write a play.”

In addition to the play reading, selected playwrights work with two mentors, one Yale faculty member and one non-Yale professional playwright, to workshop their scripts for approximately two months.

Many of the external advisors include Yale alumni who have participated in the festival in years past.

“Most of the time when I’m getting feedback, it’s from my peers [who are well-intentioned but] are still invested in making me feel good about my work,” said Graham.  “But now, I hear from people who really are established professionals and know what they’re doing. It’s been really rewarding to have a fresh pair of eyes on the script from people who don’t know me. It’s allowed the script to kind of stand on its own.”

Past mentor Lauren Yee ’07 was featured in the festival as a student and submitted her initial draft of “Ching Chong Chinaman.” Yee would become the second-most produced playwright in America of the 2019-2020 theatrical season, having nearly 15 of her plays running simultaneously. 

The four plays slated to be read aloud on Sunday are “Seeds,” “Education,” “transubstantiation,” and “The Mourning Show.” According to Margolin, the most important criterion for scripts was whether “there was life” in the play. 

While the festival is on its 21st run, the production team faced new challenges. According to Olivia O’Connor ’24, the student co-producer of the festival, recruiting actors and directors was a difficult endeavor.

“This is a very busy week for Yale theater; there’s a lot of shows going up,” said O’Connor.  “That means that there are quite a few actors and directors who are out of commission right now because they’re working on their own shows.”

This is Margolin’s first year producing the festival. As such, she says she had to learn “the ropes of how to coordinate” an event of this scale, which involved reaching out to mentors, organizing schedules and finding housing for their stay at New Haven. 

Margolin explained how difficult it was to run a festival emerging from the pandemic, with past festivals occurring entirely on Zoom. Last year’s festival was a masked event, where people had trouble “listening to the music of the text.” 

With only four hours of rehearsal time allotted to each play before the play-reading on Sunday, Graham’s first time listening to the actors’ run-through happened on Thursday, a mere four days before the festival. Graham expressed the difference between writing his work and sharing it with others. 

“I find that my dialogue is very idiosyncratic to myself,” said Graham.  “At the end of the day, I write things that make me laugh, and I can’t help but write things with my own sense of humor. There’s a specific delivery that’s important.”

While Dorfman has stepped down from the role of faculty producer, her excitement has not waned. 

She urged the importance of bringing the voice of playwrights to the ears and hearts of the Yale community.

“No lights, no sound cues, no underscores. Just the play itself. What happens among the characters becomes the world of the play,” said Dorfman. “And I can tell you, as a playwright myself, that the effect of sitting in the audience, watching something that you have devised in the privacy of your little solitary room, turn into a living thing is one of the most powerful, inspiring and exciting moments of your life.”

The Off Broadway Theater is located on 41 Broadway.

Correction 3/5: A previous version of this article misstated the number of plays in the festival. It has been updated to reflect the correct number of plays and the correct spelling of Olnek’s name.