The Occidental community usually arrives at Keck Theater expecting to see a finished play. The New Play Festival, however, provides audiences the opportunity to attend student-written plays that are still in development. Feb. 24 to Feb. 26, the 19th Annual New Play Festival featured works from five student playwrights: “Empty Glasses” by Sophie Pester (junior), “La Vie en Bleu” by Gillian Yaple (sophomore), “Those People” by Will Youmans (first year), “Thieves in the Night” by Billy Schmidt (senior) and “Dating Sucks” by Oren J. Torten (senior). Student playwrights worked alongside professional directors and a cast of both professional and student actors over three rehearsals to bring their pieces from the page to the stage. Each reading was free and open to the public, and after each show, the playwrights received feedback from the audience members.
Theater Professor Laurel Meade has been running the festival since its inception in 1998. Before she came to Occidental, the theater department had a production similar to The New Play Festival where students directed and produced the shows without the insights of professional actors and directors. Meade thought that student playwrights could benefit from theater professionals who bring fresh insights and are able to spot inconsistencies and holes in the script. Meade picked directors who she thought were well-suited to each play. Yaple, whose play is directed by Jessica Hanna, found working with a professional director to be especially enlightening.
“It’s a really cool opportunity. In an indirect way, [Jessica Hanna] informs me about my own play the same way I inform her about the show as the playwright. It’s a new way of thinking,” Yaple said.
Participation in the festival is open to any Occidental student. Professor Meade, alongside Professors Sarah Kozinn, Susan Gratch, and Thomas Slottenead read through the 18 submissions and chose five plays that are well-developed, structurally sound, theatrically inventive and use engaging language. They normally try to choose a variety of plays from different genres. According to Meade, this year’s five plays all featured subject matter related to relationships and love, though the festival does not have a predetermined theme.
Torten’s play “Dating Sucks” explores the struggles of navigating the Los Angeles dating scene. In the play, three friends compete with each other to win the most hearts in a round of speed dating. Torten’s favorite moment takes place in the backseat of an Uber car.
“I have a scene in an Uber where the characters have a rather serious and open conversation with complete disregard that there is a total stranger in the car. I think it’s interesting to play with that sort of semi-privacy within a taxi and the weird blur between relation and separation between the riders and the driver,” Torten said via email.
As student actors read alongside professional actors, the actors occasionally read the lines differently than how the playwright originally imagined them. “La Vie en Bleu” is Yaple’s first written play, and she noted that hearing the play read aloud made it easier to understand the plot. “Those People” was also Youmans’ first written and produced play. He enjoyed the rehearsal process and saw his play evolve with the guidance of professional director, Rosie Glen-Lambert.
“A lot of the lines are weirdly specific and conversational … a lot were picked up and read in different ways than I imagined, but this was most often a good thing,” Youmans said.
Throughout the three-week rehearsal process, the playwrights edited their pieces based on feedback from their directors and actors. Meade explained that playwrights often will rewrite their pieces multiple times until the performance, so none of the lines are memorized. Schmidt, who was also featured in last year’s festival, said he was making rewrites to the script ten minutes before the performance. At the showing, actors walked around the stage with scripts in their hands or stood in front of music stands as they read the lines to the audience. For Meade, rewriting is central to the New Play Festival.
“Writing is rewriting, we don’t really begin to write the play until we get to the place where we are rewriting the play. The play is not meant for the page, on the page it’s nothing. It’s really about putting it in the mouths of actors and that’s when the lightbulbs go off,” Meade said.