Thursday, May 19, 2011

Young Playwrights Learn and Write About Vaudeville

Earlier this year, PlayGround announced a playwriting competition open to all
Bay Area high school students. Contestants had until April 25th to submit a new ten-minute play based on the March Monday Night PlayGround topic, “Vaudeville,” just like the rest of the PlayGround Writers Pool. The winning plays are being presented as staged readings a la Monday Night, with professional Bay Area directors and actors, on a few select nights of the Best of PlayGround Festival. Tonight was the first night of the Young Playwrights Project, featuring Alona Bach's Act After Curtain, directed by Rebecca Ennals of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and featuring PlayGround Company Members Cindy Goldfield and Danielle Levin. Here is the line-up for the rest of the Festival:

Fri 5/20: You Wanna Refill? by Rebecca Leiner (SOTA ’11) and Madison Worthington (SOTA ’11)
Sat 5/21: Secrets in a Backstage Box by Pavla Berghen-Wolf (Jewish Community High School of the Bay ’13)
Sun 5/22: Shakespeare in an Airport by Caety Klingman (Miramonte High ’11)

Below is a group interview with the playwrights, about how they began writing, what they learned about vaudeville, and their plans for the future.

How did you first start writing plays?

ALONA: I’ve been acting for a while, so I fell in love with plays long before I tried writing one myself. When I was in seventh grade, I did a reading in New York for The People in the Picture (while it was still in development and called Laughing Matters), and I literally watched the script change as the playwright made edits to the text and story-line. It was such a strange experience to watch a play (which until that point I’d thought of as a completely immutable thing) be so liquid and changeable. It occurred to me then that the selection of plays in the world wasn’t finite, that people actually wrote new plays and changed them, and that I didn’t necessarily have to wait to see a play about something I was interested in -- I could write one for myself. What an epiphany!

I wish I could say that I was so inspired that I went home from the reading and began to write my own plays, but that would be a lie. In theory, I intended to, but I really, really hated the way I wrote. My characters’ annoying voices, my cliched plots, my pervasive over-sentimentality -- every time I sat down to write something, it turned out to be the worst piece of garbage that ever existed (at least in my mind, but also probably in real life). I decided not to write anything unless a teacher made me, or unless I could hide it under my bed or in a difficult-to-locate computer file.

Last year in History class, though, I sat next to a friend and during downtime in class we’d write plays and share them with each other. They whole process was so private -- only he and I read them -- that I was much less self-concious about my writing. Our play-exchanges happened at about the same time that my phase of reading tons of plays and seeing way more theater than I could afford to (time-wise and money-wise) started. I was seeing a lot of shows and each time I left the theater, I thought: “That play was incredibly [insert superlative adjective here]. I want to do that.” So my friend and I set up a (very small) playwriting club at school and we’ve both been writing plays this year.

REBECCA: At the end of ninth grade, going into the summer, my theatre ensemble started our playwriting class. I have been writing since then.

MADISON: I first started writing plays at school for my playwriting class. My teacher would put on some music, shout out some unheard-of words from the dictionary, or read us a news article to get us thinking and writing.

PAVLA: In my theatre class at school, we did a brief unit on playwrighting, so I began writing short scenes. Then I decided to write an entire one-act.

What is your writing process like when writing a play?

I haven’t written very many yet, so I’m not quite sure. My (extremely limited) experience is that my process varies, but it’s always messy. Sometimes the characters come to me first, sometimes the feeling of the play, and sometimes I just see or hear or read some random Thing that seems so interesting that I wonder how it would look or sound in a play. I write the Thing down in a notebook (or, if I’m feeling “organized”, I type it into one of those Sticky Notes on Macs [that are now taking over my computer screen]) and let the Thing marinate. If it actually is interesting and wasn’t just me having an over-imaginative moment, the Thing eventually turns into Something. Generally. Mostly. Anyway, after that initial idea, I tend to outline broadly and then fill in the scenes. Sometimes the scenes will change the outline slightly because I’ll discover something new about the characters from the way they talk or react.

I get an idea and I start a draft. Then I revise it a few times until I send it to a classmate. Once I get their notes and revise it again, I send it to my teacher, who helps edit it. We go through many drafts.

I will flip through my notebook of scribbled writing until I find a concept that I like and want to build on. From there I go through draft after draft and get family, friends, and teachers to read it and give me feedback. Thank you to everyone who has helped me in my writing process!

I think about a topic, then I create characters and think about the characters relationships with one another and their goals. I begin writing the dialogue, and the characters lines and actions make the story progress. I will have one idea in the beginning and depending on what I can picture happening with actors onstage, then the plot and dialogue will evolve accordingly.

Who are some of your favorite playwrights?

Ooh. This is tough. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Tennessee Williams, some George Bernard Shaw, and a bit of Chekov, and I love all of those. There are also a bunch of local playwrights whose work I would love to see over and over and over. THEN there are other playwrights whose plays I want to see more of after seeing or reading one and falling in love.

Favorite Playwrights- William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Helman

My favorite play at the moment is Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. I also love Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.

William Shakespeare, Rogers & Hammerstein, and Oscar Wilde.

How much did you know about vaudeville before writing your play?

Er...not much. It’s funny because for a while I was really into early-20th century America, but I didn’t ever have an obsession with vaudeville specifically and I didn’t know very much about it. I knew the basics and could probably converse about sister acts and The Palace semi-coherently. I had also just seen The Companion Piece at Z Space, so I was thinking a lot about that.

I did not know much about vaudeville before this play. I took clowning classes, but it was interesting to explore it in writing.

Before writing You Wanna Refill? I knew that anything considered to be in the genre of vaudeville had to be full of energy and comedy.

I have always loved musicals, so the bit I knew before about vaudeville mainly came from what I saw in "Singing in the Rain" and such musicals, and my understanding that vaudeville was like a traveling talent show.

What did you learn about vaudeville in the process of writing your play?

Details -- SO many small details, random tidbits, interesting stories. Who knew that the way the acts were arranged within a show meant something, or that “Will it play in Peoria?” has its roots in vaudeville? (Okay, a lot of people knew those things, but I didn’t.) I also found it interesting (though depressing) to read about the death of vaudeville as the American population turned its attention to moving pictures.

Vaudeville taught me that there is no such thing as "going past an extreme" in playwrighting. A playwright can take as many risks as they want, and the story will unfold before them.

In the process of writing, I learned just how hard it is to keep up the slapstick energy that makes a piece vaudeville and also what a broad genre vaudeville is. Anything from physical comedy to plate-spinning can be considered vaudeville, as long as it keeps an audience laughing and ready for more.

I learned a bit about the time period and made an effort to use diction and prop/costume descriptions that would be appropriate for children of vaudeville performers of that time.

What are your plans after you graduate?

I’m staying in the Bay Area for a gap year to start a non-profit called Up Next, which will encourage more teens to go see theater by setting up discounts, outreach, and group theater-going (especially at the less-well-known and more experimental Bay Area theater companies). After four years of being the youngest person in the audience, I wanted to bring my generation of theater-goers to see all of the extremely relevant, thought-provoking, and just plain awesome performances in the Bay Area. (I also really need to learn how to drive before I go to college. So that needs to happen next year too.) After that, I’m heading to Harvard and the snow!

Next year I am attending the University of Minnesota Guthrie Theatre's BFA Actor Training Program. I will continue writing during my spare time.

After graduating, I plan to continue to pursue theatre and attend UCLA in the fall.

It feels like a long way into the future, but community service, traveling, and art of some kind are at the top of my to-do list.


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