Discovering Plays by Isabella Hansen

Before coming to Creative Writing, my exposure to plays were very limited. I saw “A Christmas Carol” when I was 9 and acted in a “Tale of Two Cities” at 13. I used to have a specific idea of what a play should be in my head: a perfect plot, easy to decipher characters and a message which was usually something about love or a cheating scandal. Throughout this year’s playwriting unit, I learned a very important lesson. Plays definitely do not need solid plots. Our unit’s artist in residence, Connor Bassett introduced a multitude of plays with different styles that experimented with the one question that has directed my whole entire thinking behind playwriting. How do you write a good ending?

The one play that I think really taught me that playwriting does not need to obey a strict set of parameters is “Waiting for Godot” by Samual Beckett. “Waiting for Godot” experiments with the idea that endings do not need to be concrete and solid in order for the play to be effective. Over the course of the play viewers watch as two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a man named Godot. What really struck me was how unique it was, so unique that during a performance, over half the crowd walked out during intermission. Now it is used as an example of the most stimulating plays of all time. 

The play “Crime of the Century” utilizes other forms of performance tools such as spoken word, dancing and recordings to better emphasize the effect gang violence has on youth. As I was watching, I was drawn to how “Crime of the Century” excluded conventional tools of plays such as plot but still remained potent and influential. Now, one thing I try to think about whenever I write plays is to not stick to the common endings I find myself writing so often and to try and explore different ways of ending my plays. 

Isabella Hansen, Class of ’23

I Am Not Afraid of Death but I Am Afraid of Playwriting by Paloma Fernandez

I absolutely despised playwriting my freshman year. I thought all plays had to be serious to be “good” and respected. Unfortunately, last year our playwriting unit got cut short due to the pandemic, and during that unit as odd as it was with distance learning, I realized I enjoyed playwriting, maybe I was even good at it.

Coming up on the one year anniversary of school closures, and our playwriting unit being cut short, I reflect on how my love for playwriting and screenwriting has grown over the past twelve months. One could view the conversations in playwriting as a substitute for all the real-world interactions we would normally be experiencing. I find that a little sad even though it’s true, at least for myself. I get to create characters and eavesdrop on their conversations. At times I even insert characters similar to myself in hopes that it will make me feel like I’m apart of the conversation. I am fully aware that sounds odd, but after a full year in quarantine, I’ve realized how much I miss interacting with strangers, all characters start out as strangers anyway. 

So, I guess that all I am attempting to say is that my freshman year hatred for playwriting has somehow turned into nothing but love and admiration. I realize now that I perhaps never actually hate playwriting, I was simply scared of it, and rightfully so. I still find playwriting terrifying, you would have to be completely fearless not to. But, let me tell you, playwriting is completely worth every moment of terror. The most accomplished I have ever felt in Creative Writing was when I shared a play I had written, completely convinced it was not going to land, and people actually ended up liking it, maybe I could even say loved it but that may be too egotistical. 

Paloma Fernandez, Class of ’22

Sending Love to the Virtual Holiday Show by Paloma Fernandez

In this unconventional year, the arts have been forced to make many adjustments. The SOTA community is no different. Every year all the departments come together to create a Holiday Show. I myself have never been apart of the traditional Holiday Show, yet, this year I was put in charge of leading a small group of Creative Writers in creating a play, and putting on a staged zoom reading to submit. 

I can only assume that the creation of this show is much more enjoyable in person than online. At times it was proven frustrating. At first, the nine of us attempted to write together, but we got extremely little done during this time. We would get distracted easily, and then I would get distracted while trying to get everyone back on track. So, in our two days working as a whole group, we were only able to produce an idea and a single page of writing. At this point, we decided to split into groups of two or three, and each group would write a couple of pages before passing the baton to for the next group to take over. With this system, we ended getting the play done in a week rather than the year I assume it would have taken if we were to continue as a whole group. Then came the time to do a staged reading of the finished product, but it was much more difficult to get six people on zoom at the same time that I thought. 

I know for a fact that I missed out on the playful whole group atmosphere there is most years. I know that at times it was more stressful than fun. But, I am still glad I did it. In the end, we produced a piece titled “Medieval Matriarchal Merriment,” and it follows five medieval women during a white elephant gift exchange, and it is everything but traditional. I will not say much more because it will be online soon enough, and you can go see its glory for yourself. In the end, I would just like to say, thank you to everyone who worked on this project with me, I love you all endlessly. 

Link to the Holiday Show: https://sites.google.com/sfusd.edu/asawa-sota-wintershowcase2020/home 

Paloma Fernandez (Class of ’22)

Playwriting as a Freshman by Otto Handler

Being a freshman, playwriting was something that I had rarely tried out. As a result, I felt nervous going into this unit because it was one of the only forms of writing that I had little to no experience with.

As the Creative Writing Department usually does, we read a lot of the specific kind of writing before we try our hand in creating a piece of our own. As we were reading some different plays with our artist-in-residence, Sara Brody, a feeling of dread started to form inside me. I didn’t have even a fainest clue about what I was going to write my ten-minute play about. Even though most people didn’t have ideas, I still felt like I was the only one. 

For the end of every unit in Creative Writing I and II, all the students put together a final piece that includes all new skills learned throughout the unit. Playwriting was no exception.  After a week of workshopping these plays, the students turn in all scripts and Isaiah Dufort, our department head, Heather Woodward, and Sara Brody, our artist-in-residence chose the lucky plays that will be cast and performed at our playwriting show which happened last week. 

Being a freshmen, my play was not chosen for the show (thank goodness) but I was worried if my play would even make it through the extensive week of workshopping. It did make it though and despite my attitude toward it when I first wrote the play, I ended up with a decent ten minute skit.  

When I finally came up with an idea for my play, I didn’t like it, but my play was due on Monday, and it was Friday and I had already written a little of my play and it was too late to change my idea. I spent many weekend nights hating what I was writing and then, on the weekend, I slowly began to actually enjoy myself. That’s when my play was the best, when I accepted that the first draft wasn’t going to be perfect and that I required time to really become interested in my idea to push it to its best potential. 

The best part of the playwriting show was the casting process. It was interesting to figure out who worked for which role. When I was asked to try out different roles, it was the first bit of acting I had done since middle school. Most plays and musicals at Ruth Asawa SOTA are put on by the more performative departments such as Musical Theater or Theater. I think that the Creative Writing shows always turn out good, despite the fact that we are not a performative department. 

My parts in the play were playing two children. One of them is living in a sad suburban midwestern town that had pretty much nothing going on. The other one lives in a suburban town full of people with wacky christmas lawn decor.  They were both different characters with different emotions and personalities. 

This show was an opportunity to act and be a part of a bigger thing. Both are things that don’t often happen in a normal high school.

— Otto Handler, Class of 2022

My Experience with the 10-Minute Play by Eva Whitney

Upon entering the Creative Writing Department at SOTA, I was surprised to learn that, aside from the expected Fiction and Poetry units, there would also be a Playwriting unit taught by a real playwright. I had avoided the choice to write a play for my audition portfolio—the thought of creating a whole, live scene on paper was far too daunting. I had never even considered plays to be included in creative writing. To me, they bordered film and entertainment—I never considered the fact that someone was behind the show, putting these characters into existence, and I certainly didn’t believe I was ready to do that myself.

It took me a year to realize what made a good ten minute play. Through countless exercises, examples of groundbreaking plays, and even attending live performances, I still couldn’t grasp what it was that made a short play. I wrote a mess of a play my freshman year, complete with strange characters with weak motivations in an odd setting. Here is an excerpt from my freshman year play, “To Reno,” which follows a couple on their way home from Burning Man who are bombarded by Ivan, a criminal:

POPPY: So, Ivan, tell us more about yourself. Where are you headed?

IVAN: I have to visit my parole officer, Vicky, in Reno. I fucking hate Vicky. She’s pale… so pale. And her hair is greasy and gray. Thinking about her makes me want to vomit.

ARLO: Why are you on parole?

IVAN: A few months ago I was in Reno, minding my own business. And then I had to piss, so I went over to a Chuck E. Cheese’s and asked if I could use their bathroom, as any gentleman would. They said no, the bathroom was “customers only.” What kind of bullshit is that? So I took a piss right on their building. Turns out Sharon and some other tight-ass mothers had an issue with that and I landed myself a week in jail. Now I’m on parole for the next three months and I have to visit Vicky each week. Honest to God, I’d rather be in jail than have to see that bitch every week.

POPPY: I’m sure Vicky isn’t that bad…

IVAN: Oh, she is! She tried to get me to interview for the position of a secretary at a law firm! Who does she think I am? Some delicate housewife? Give me a break!

While “To Reno” had a good back-and-forth between the characters, there was no movement on stage and the situation itself was unbelievable. The Burning Man couple, although self-proclaimed “open-minded” people, would never have been able to understand Ivan as well as I wrote them to. Looking back, I think this scene would’ve been more appropriate for a short story, where the audience is not so concerned with what it looks like, but rather how the characters are speaking to one another.

My sophomore year I was determined to write a play that was undeniably better for the stage than the page. I began to think of what I felt was missing when I read a story: the characters’ actual voices, how they physically interacted with each other, and the power of props.

The result of this list was “The Lord Provides,” which focused on an isolated, Mormon-like family who discovers a yam among their potato crops. Here is an excerpt:

GERSHOM: When I went to the well with Mother last week, she said that Gilead isn’t going to return home.

GIDEON: She speaks the truth. Gilead made the decision to leave and he knew that meant he was cutting contact with us and the rest of the community.

GERSHOM: Where is he?

GIDEON: Ecrin.

GERSHOM: Where’s that?

GIDEON: We took you to see horses there when you were younger. It’s hard to explain, but your mother and I knew your brother would not fit in from the beginning. He asked too many questions. I remember when Gilead was very young we took him to The Holy Rocks–– remember The Holy Rocks, Gershom? Well, Gilead ended up finding some kind of toy witch from the Outside, left behind from an Outside child and Gilead refused to give it up! A real Godly child would have obeyed us. Your mother and I had to put up with a lot of egregious behavior from your brother. He was a little too headstrong, you know? But God smiles on you, Son.

GERSHOM: Father?

GIDEON: Hm?

GERSHOM: This isn’t a potato.

What made “The Lord Provides” superior to “To Reno” were the characters. Not only were their names very unusual, but so was their way of speaking. They addressed each other formally at all times, the son always the one asking the questions, the father always answering. The rigidity of their dialogue showed more onstage than it did when read, and revealed how strict the made-up society really was. Beyond the dialogue the usage of a prop, a yam, also strengthened this play. In “The Lord Provides,” the yam symbolizes the brother, Gilead, who is the first person to ever have dared to leave this tight religious community. I used the prop as a means of showing how each character felt about Gilead’s departure—the son is curious and accepting, the mother more cautious but still interested, and the father completely rejecting it. It was also helpful as a playwright to have one, solid object that I could keep returning to. This was the first play I got into the annual playwriting show.

Finally, this year I knew I wanted to take a more humorous route with my play. I had to write a serious play in sophomore year in order to understand how a short play works. Adding humor on top is another large step that, at least in my case, had to be worked up to. From what I learned through writing and producing “The Lord Provides,” I now knew that dynamic, slightly unbelievable characters were a must, as well as keeping a quick pace, and having delivery that characterizes the speaker. With this new checklist, I produced “What’s Going On in Colchester, Illinois,” which centers on a town meeting where the kooky, small-town people politely testify against naming their park “Hugh Janus Monument Park” after the richest man from their town who was given an unfortunately vulgar-sounding name:

MODERATOR: Next!

VIVIAN: Hi, I’m Vivian, and I’m real big on tennis. I go to the park every day and just hit balls against the wall because no one else in Colchester likes tennis. You see, I had this one friend, Alice, who liked tennis, but she got real good and now plays in Springfield with the big guys. I’m not that good at tennis, but I’m pretty good, you know?

MODERATOR: Vivian, let’s get to the point, okay?

VIVIAN: Yeah, yeah, I know. Basically what I’m saying is that “Hugh Janus Monument Park” just doesn’t sound athletic, you know? Not your name, you look very fit, Mr. Janus, but as a park name, I wouldn’t be drawn to play tennis there. But if you ever want to have a match, just let me know, Sir.

MODERATOR: That’s enough, Vivian.

I was aware of the danger that came with centering an entire ten-minute play on one joke, so I was sure not to reveal the joke for about three minutes. As I watched the play be performed in front of its actual audience, I could feel everyone growing bored, believing that they were about to watch a normal town meeting for the next ten minutes. I felt that this initial boredom actually strengthened the reaction to the first time Hugh Janus’s name is said aloud. After Frances, the town’s nervous historian, gave a painfully long introduction on Mr. Janus, the moderator thanks her by saying, “Thank you for that eloquent speech, Frances…I wholeheartedly agree with this name change. I cannot see why anyone would object to the ‘Hugh Janus Monument Park.’” I then reinforced the joke by having every character repeat his name when they went up to testify; it would’ve been impossible to miss the joke. I thought that this play’s quick pace also kept it interesting to the audience, as there were about fifteen moving characters onstage, each with similar but slightly differing motivations.

It was so gratifying to sit backstage and hear the audience actually laugh at lines I had written to be funny. Unlike “The Lord Provides,” which relied on symbolism that likely went over much of the audience’s heads, “What’s Going On in Colchester, Illinois” centered on such a low-level joke that anyone could find some humor in it. I certainly have quite a ways from mastering the ten-minute play, but each year I see so much growth in both my own and my peers’ work that I have motivation to continue the search for the perfect short play.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

The Beginning of Playwriting by Zai Deriu

Still at the start of our playwriting unit, it easily shows how little I know about writing for the stage. Poetry and fiction I had experience reading and writing, so went into those units with some prior knowledge.

Playwriting, on the other hand, is a completely new experience. At the unit’s start, we began discussing dialogue. Even in fiction, I avoid dialogue. There’s no real reason for this, only that I’m not so comfortable with it as with other things. In more ways than one, I was (and still am, to a certain extent) out of my comfort zone.

Over the past  weeks of playwriting, I’ve learned more about playwriting (and dialogue) than I knew there was to learn. It’s been crazy to be taught an entirely new topic, especially after being so immersed in our past fiction unit.

I’ve also had to start thinking about the topic of my play. Technically speaking, it won’t be my first, as I attempted a play for my SOTA portfolio, but it will be my first with any real instruction. Looking back on that play, I now know I formatted it entirely wrong, and can see it lacks any sort of real plot. I’m here, though, so it must have been alright.

In trying to choose topics for various prompts, I found myself thinking of what makes something for the stage rather than the page, which we discussed in class. Should I throw myself into dialogue completely, and embrace my lack of knowing what to do? Should I think of past experiences in my life for inspiration before anything else? It’s difficult to think of ideas when you have to.

Perhaps it’s because of how extensively we spoke of plot during fiction, but I do think it’s getting easier for me to pull out story ideas when asked. Not to say it’s easy, however. I can confidently say that I’ve become more comfortable in my writing in my past seven months in CW. It’s because of this I’m not all that scared to be starting our playwriting unit. If I had been thrown into playwriting at the year’s start, I would have been lost and confused, but now I know I’ll be alright.

Being more confident in my own writing than I was at the beginning of the year is great, and I already know that this will help me through every english-based class I ever have, but perhaps more important than that is the friendships I’ve formed with other creative writers. From the beginning of the year, myself and the other CW freshmen have gotten along incredibly well. Without that sense of community, I don’t know how I possibly could have gotten through the first few months of school and even made it this far. Fortunately, I had their support, so now I’m here, and I’m very happy about it.

Zai Deriu, class of 2022

Five Days of Workshopping by Xuan Ly

For one week, in preparation for the playwriting show, our Creative Writing class was comprised of nothing but small group workshops. We would all come into class with four copies of our drafts we had been working with. On the board, there would be groups of four, ideally with one student from each grade, and we would break off into those groups to workshop. In the groups, each play is casted and read for the playwright to listen to, and then the playwright is given edits on parts such as the fundamental plot and diction. Even as a sophomore, with a full understanding of the workshopping process and its benefits, I am nervous going into a workshop. Of course, they never are as bad as I make them out to be. Each person just wants to help guide the piece to reach its fullest potential.

This week of workshopping was a slightly different experience than what we have done in CW1. Each day of the week, we brought four copies of our play to be read aloud and edited by our peers. Since we had back to back workshopping days, I felt I was not given ample time to deeply revise, attend routine extracurricular activities, and finish other academic homework before the next day. Typically, we are given two or three days between workshops to slowly revise and better balance with academic work. With new groups each day, I noticed more contradicting comments than usual, which widened the possibilities for m play, but also made it more difficult to revise. Ultimately, I found that the day-to-day revisions I made to my play were quite small, but workshopping is always what the writer makes of it.

Being in the department, I have learned the importance of revision, even if it is sometimes the worst. I, personally, have a difficult time with constant revision of a single piece. I find it best for me to have breaks between each revision so I can approach the piece without instantly hating it. This seemingly endless week of workshopping tested my limits of endurance for listening to my own work. Despite this, I think getting to hear the entire play read aloud was one of the most helpful parts of the workshopping process. In all the groups I was in, we read through every piece, which allowed for the playwright to see how the dialogue flowed.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021

Freshman Playwright by Lauren Ainslie

Creative Writing has just performed its final show of the year, and wrapped up its playwriting unit simultaneously. There were many things I learned from playwriting, and I am grateful for all of them because when playwriting season starts up again next year I won’t have the same what-the-hell-am-I-doing freshman sort of feeling again!

It was an entirely new world. The quiet, thoughtful Creative Writing classroom I had learned to expect was gone every Friday (quite literally, as we had to relocate all the furniture into the hallway), and replaced with a flurry of movement and voice exercises we needed to learn to become familiar with how stage directions physically appear on stage. But the change was refreshing. Just like every other unit we’ve had this year, playwriting changed most of what I knew about writing. Before, with fiction and poetry, writing was something very private and created almost entirely by the author. And that was true of playwriting until we had to act our scenes out, then I realized that the final project was very much a collaboration between the actor, the set, and the playwright. It was all very different from what was imagined on paper.

There were other barriers I had to overcome for playwriting, such as the idea of having to manifest physically what a character was thinking instead of just saying it. Yes, these new changes were hard, but with them came many unexpected creative opportunities. The playwright could dictate the set, the costumes, the sound cues and lighting. The world created on stage is limited to the first glance, but boundless at the second. The playwriting unit is over, but that only means next year’s unit and show are going to be better.  

Lauren Ainslie, class of 2021

Overcoming Stagefright by Julieta Roll

Every year Creative Writing has a playwriting show. We select around ten plays from our playwriting unit to produce, all of which are performed by us. By no means is Creative Writing a master of theatre, but in my three years in the department I have become infinitely more comfortable with the stage.

I have never been an outgoing person. As a child I would often cower, begging not to be seen. Now as a teenager I have taught myself to be in the spotlight, to be accepting of attention. Creative Writing has taken my humility, in a good way. I have learned that I can’t spend so much time worrying about what others think of me. I should act as I wish, be completely myself. As much as that sounds cheesy the Creative Writing shows have truly aided me in reaching that confidence. For rehearsal week we have to spend hours on stage, fully becoming our characters and yelling at the top of our lungs. The process can be overwhelming yet it has pushed me to explore my abilities in performance. I have no choice but to play the role I have been given and give it all I have.

In this year’s playwriting show I played the role of a maleficent bird. As I looked through the dialogue I would have to memorize and the cues I would have to learn I felt that familiar surge of panic. The feeling of ​stagefright ​and worry. ‘I can’t do this’ I thought, thinking of myself up there on the stage, everyone staring. Yet, rehearsal week arrived and I knew there was no backing out. I would play a bird, a pretentious demanding bird, a bird that was quite the opposite of myself. Like all the years past I memorized I went through grueling rehearsal and when the moment finally came to walk on stage I felt that pumping adrenaline fuel my body. One thing I always remember about being on stage is how quiet it feels. You become consciousness of how many people can watch you at once, waiting for your words. As always, the play continued and as if on autopilot I said my lines and walked off stage. “I just did that” I thought as I often think when I finish a performance. I had enough confidence to go up there. I demanded attention.

Julieta Roll, class of 2019

Playwriting by Emma Cooney

I had never written a full length play before starting the playwriting unit. At first it was short plays that had a theme, chosen by our Artist in Residence, Nicole Jost. Then we had to write our final play that would be looked at and possibly chosen to be put in the playwriting show. I had to write a play for which I had to consider an audience. As well as what would be realistic for an actual production. I’d never done that before.

The process of writing a play was both stimulating and agonizing. It was hard trying to start because I didn’t have an idea that I was incredibly passionate about or excited to do. So, Heather Woodward (the department head) sat me down and helped me sort through my brain and pick it for ideas. We started with memories I thought of as interesting or fun to tell. From there I found tons of ideas and things that could be cool to write a play on. So, I started with just simple dialogue between my characters and from there decided how I was going to write it out. It started to become easier and easier, and before I knew it, I had my ten page first draft.

After the plays that were chosen to be in the show were chosen, the casting time came. We had to figure out who would play who. The process didn’t take long and was over in a day or so. I was chosen to play the character Patrick in Max Chu’s play. I hadn’t had to experience or remembering lines, and then having to act them out. Remembering my poem for the creative writing performance was a much different thing than having to also remember things like cue lines. I didn’t want to bother any upperclassmen with my questions on how to remember lines and cue lines, so I simply went with my instincts. I started by repeating a line until I remembered it, then I would move on to remembering the second line. But I would repeat the line before the one I was learning, so there was an order to them. With that, I quickly remembered all my lines, but then came how I was going to know when to say my lines. So I gathered willing friends and family, and had them read the lines before mine. Before the process, I hadn’t realized that I was actually quite good at remembering lines.

The playwriting unit taught me an array of different tools, such as how to construct a well written play, how to act, how to remember lines, and how to act.

Emma Cooney, class of 2021