Sandstorm by Nadja Goldberg

We are one week into our playwriting unit. The unit is taught by Nicole Jost and, unlike the fiction and poetry units, it includes both Creative Writing I (freshmen and sophomores) and Creative Writing II (juniors and seniors). So far, we have had in-class activities and discussions, read various plays, and written scenes for our own plays based on prompts Nicole has assigned. Each class is usually focused on a particular aspect of playwriting such as monologues and status between characters. Our assigned homework and reading is based on what we explored in class. For example, before discussing the idea of “character status,” we read “Left to Right” by Steven Dietz, a short play with complexly interconnected characters who have distinct status among each other. For the homework assignment, we were told to write a scene involving two characters in which one character has a higher status, but by the end of the scene, the other character manages to achieve the higher status.

This prompt caused me to reflect on how status plays into various relationships and how I might portray that in my writing. I struggled for a while in front of an empty screen, trying to come up with a status-based relationship that would have natural dialogue between the characters, but wouldn’t be too typical and boring. Over dinner, I discussed the assignment with my mom. She offered a few ideas, but I wasn’t drawn to any of them, and our discussion escalated into an argument. Finally, my dad suggested that I write about the conversation my mom and I were having right then about the prompt. I realized that was perfect. Our disagreement had a definite element of status with my mom having the higher status. And as I rejected each of my mom’s ideas, it could have been in an attempt to gain a higher status for myself. After dinner, I returned to my computer and recaptured the banter between my mom and me:

SANDSTORM
By Nadja Goldberg

CHARACTERS
ELLA, freshman in highschool.
BETH, Ella’s mother.

 

SCENE 1

ELLA and BETH sit at a small, round dinner table with emptied plates of lasagna.

ELLA (frustrated)
I still don’t have an idea.

BETH (also frustrated)
Just write whatever comes to mind. You just need to get this done.

ELLA
Write whatever comes to mind?! Nothing’s coming to mind!

BETH
Didn’t we just come up with an idea? You can write the play about a student asking a teacher questions about the class material, and after the teacher explains, the student says something about the topic that reveals they actually know more about it than we think.

ELLA (in a sarcastic imitation)
 That would just be like: I don’t get it.” “Well here’s what it is.” “Oh, actually I get it more than you do. Boo-yah!”

BETH
Well I’m sure you can make it more interesting than that.

ELLA
Exactly!

BETH
Ella, the focus is not on writing a masterpiece. It’s just on completing the assignment so you can get to bed.

ELLA
But I can’t write something I’m not invested in.

BETH
Sometimes you have to. That’s just how it is with school work.

ELLA
I have to write three to five pages! And there’s no possible way if I go with that topic.

BETH
Just write two and a half and get it over with.

ELLA
Two and a half pages is not acceptable for an assignment that requires at least three! And I’m not going to dive into writing a play with a plot I’m not engaged in, because it will be boring and tedious and that’s no way to write!

BETH
Fine, fine… How about the one with the car salesman who is trying to sell a fancy car to a man, and the man, in order to get a good deal, tries to hide how much he loves the car.

ELLA
Eh. I know just about nothing when it comes to cars. And I don’t think I have time to do enough research to convince my teacher otherwise.

BETH
Look. I know both options don’t seem so fantastic, but you just have to pick the one that speaks to you more and get on with it.

ELLA
Pick one of those?! That’s like choosing between eating a rotten tomato or a rotten avocado. Both will be equally mushy and disgusting, but “just go with one that might be a little less so.”

BETH
Ella, I’m just trying to help, okay? You have an assignment that you have to submit tonight at midnight and you just need to get it done. The more you worry about it, the less time you have to work on it, and the more frantic you’ll be later on.

ELLA groans.

ELLA
I’m sick of homework.

BETH
I know, but you still have to do it.

ELLA
I know that. I just wish it would come less frequently and in more manageable quantities. It’s crazy: I’m expected to spend more than seven hours at school and on top of that, do bucket loads of homework. And I have a segment of a play due in three hours and the only two ideas I have are duds!

BETH
I hear you Ella. And I know it’s hard. But I think what you need right now is a positive outlook.

ELLA
Well I think what I need right now is an idea for my play.

BETH
And that’s not going to come if you continue to grumble about it. That’s just the truth.

ELLA (upset)
I’m sick of homework.

BETH
Ella, that’s beside the point. You have homework to do, and you need to do it. We can talk about your feelings later.

ELLA
Well I can’t write a play without an idea for a play. It’s simple.

BETH
Well obviously, I’m not helping. So you need to just come up with an idea. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. Just an idea to get started on a rough draft.

ELLA
My mind is blank! It’s like an endless desert full of blazing frustrations, and the only ideas are sparse, patchy clouds that drift by.

BETH
What the hell do you mean, “you don’t have any ideas?” Likening your mind to a desert— that’s incredible!

ELLA
I mean… I guess.

Lights fade.

End scene.

The Four Fundamental Conditions of Theatre by Xuan Ly

Playwriting is the last of Creative Writing’s three main units (the others being poetry and fiction). This week, for this six-week unit, Creative Writing welcomed our artist-in-residence, Nicole Jost. It is Nicole’s second year teaching CW. She is a local playwright, and is finishing her doctorate at SFSU this spring!

In the week that Nicole has been us, we have read four plays, seen one play, and learned about the four fundamental conditions of theatre. The four conditions include: collaborations, group audience, suspension of disbelief, and perpetual present. These four things, among others, are what differentiates playwriting from other forms of literature. Collaborating with other actors and writers is a crucial part of playwriting. With novels, there is no need for collaborations unless the author is co-writing their novel. Collaborations allow more than one perspective on the play. While reading a novel or collection of poems, there is only one person in the audience. While viewing a play, the group audience and surroundings may reflect how a single viewer experiences the show. Suspension of disbelief implies that the audience must believe that the world that has been created onstage is real, despite any other logical reasoning. Lastly, the idea of perpetual present time urges the audience to forget any past knowledge of what the topic of the play, or what the play is about. The idea encourages the audience to experience it in the present as if they did not have any prior knowledge.

These four fundamental conditions allow audiences to more thoroughly enjoy the piece that the playwright has created. It also helps the playwright take the audience’s experience into account. During playwriting, we are taught not just as writers, but actors as well. I am excited to see what where next few weeks of playwriting with Nicole takes us.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021

The Importance of Movement by Stella Pfahler

This week we started or Playwriting unit with writer-in-residence Eugenie Chan. Having never really written a legitimate play before, I was a little daunted at first, especially when Eugenie handed of 500-page readers to each of us. I was already clogged with academics and wasn’t looking forward to daily Creative Writing homework.

Eugenie’s approach to writing is different than any I’ve seen before. We start off every class with a physical warm-up, consisting of some stretches and then three “centering” breaths. On top of that, much of our class time thus far has been spent outside, whether it’s to act out plays, write them, or peer-edit.

When I write in my free time, I am never still. I have never been able to just sit down and come up with something magically. I often pace when I write, and often before starting I take a walk or do a repetitive task. I suppose it has something to do with my “creative process.” When I was younger, some of my peers and teachers called me “hyperactive” and even went as far as to unofficially diagnose me with ADHD. I was told to “reign it in” and progressively learned to keep still and quiet in class.

It is extremely relieving to have a physical outlet during class, given that both writing and staying active are important to me. I don’t feel right if I don’t stretch daily. Some of my less athletic friends lovingly call me a “freak” for these habits and scoff when I ramble about how great it is to get fresh air. However, I do know that everyone has a different approach to writing, a different process, different rituals. Playwriting has proved that the celebration and embracing of such peculiarities is vital to a larger appreciation of the art.

Stella Pfahler, class of 2019

Adventures in Playwriting by Solange Baker

On Tuesday we started our playwriting unit. As a Freshman this is my first time truly delving into playwriting. The only writing of a script that I’ve done is for my portfolio and four to five times on my own. But this year the experience of the unit is new for everyone. In the past the playwriting unit has been taught by Isaiah Dufort. So this will be the first year that anyone currently in Creative Writing will have playwriting with our brand new artist-in-residence, Eugenie Chan.

Having acted in plays before, I have more experience on that side of the play-producing business. Once, when I was attending the reading of an author making her debut novel, I was told that once you publish a book or piece of writing that you get this uncomfortable feeling of having to let go. You realize that this story that you spent so much time on, that you essentially dedicated a portion of your life to producing and revising, is no longer only yours. It’s not personal anymore and that can be hard to let go of. In playwriting this takes a more physical form as your words and ideas are being portrayed by somebody else. But you can imagine that at the same time it’s probably wonderful to be able to see your work come to life. It might be worrying as the actors and director will most likely interpret your work differently than you had intended. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s part of the beauty of writing: the reader always brings their own experience to the writing and makes it—in a way—unique to them. In fact, as you are reading this you are making it your own, interpreting it differently than another person would by subconsciously bringing your own background knowledge to the writing. Of course it depends on who you talk to, but writing can be an interactive experience. Yes, us holed-up writers who are said to spend our time staring at our screens and have a permanent indent in our hands where a pen should be and who develop carpal tunnel at the age of twenty, can create an interactive experience.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

[DR]: 12/13

by Frances (’14)

On Friday, we continued our playwriting unit by workshopping our plays. I’ve always liked workshopping. It’s a staple of the Creative Writing department, and a good complement to the feedback we get from our teachers. Peer perspective is much different from professional perspective. When, for instance, Isaiah gives us criticism, he focuses on what he thinks we should change because he is viewing our plays from the eyes of a more experienced playwright. During workshopping, we tend to see each other’s work the way an audience might see it. We let ourselves get excited about our favorite parts. This is important, I think. We see our art the way an art viewer would see it.

In other news, Midori lost her phone and spent a good deal of class looking for it. At first, she assumed that she’d left it in one of her morning classrooms, but then she used a GPS tracker to locate it, and realized that it wasn’t even in San Francisco. She watched helplessly as it moved from city to city across the peninsula. Molly called several police departments. It was only after a lot of strife that Midori realized her classmate, Cristina Rey, had taken the phone.

Ain’t Nothing Like the First Time

To be honest, I never really saw myself as much of a play person.

It’s not a long held prejudice, or a complicated one. I’ve just never been very interested in reading them on paper, and although I enjoy the productions that I get a chance to see, it’s just not something I find myself actively searching for.

It’s amazing, though, how plays come to life. It’s wild and it’s arduous; it takes a lot of time and contribution from a lot of people; after a few days, though you begin to see a spark, like something starts to click between the actors and director and writer. In the week leading up to the play writing show, this is what I experienced:

Monday, DAY 1: The barest bones are set. At this point in time, we didn’t even have the stage to start rehearsals. We roamed around the hallways and libraries, looking for places to practice lines in peace. One by one, plays were read from crisp white scripts, and that was it: everyone is still learning at this point. Words lead to characters; characters lead to interactions; interaction leads to tension and drama. But, at this point, all anyone has is words and characters they need to learn.

Tuesday, DAY 2: We get to  the theater to rehearse, and on the stage the actors get a sense of how they have to move in front of the audience of people. A few people are off-book, but most cling to their scripts. Actors and directors slowly become more comfortable with their scripts and characters, and really begin working together to make the play as natural feeling as possible.

Wednesday, DAY 3: The plays are finally coming to life. Having workshopped the plays in previous drafts, I can see the intention in the writer’s words finally coming out in the action and tension of the play. Actors become more familiar with their scripts and their characters; they understand who they are to become to carry out the author’s words.

Thursday, DAY 4: I sit in the audience every chance I get as the plays are rehearsed, since I won’t have a chance to see them during the performance. The plays are coming together, and Waffles for Dinner (by Avi Hoen, the musical about estranged sisters reconnecting and overcoming waffle phobias) makes me laugh so hard I collapse on the ground crying. Everything runs smoothly, and though some are more comfortable holding their scripts on stage, it doesn’t take away from their ability to inhabit their characters.

Friday, PERFORMANCE DAY: Everything is beautiful. Tech makes everything bright and pretty, and the lights and sound cues are all set. Isaiah is a beautiful raccoon and dragon.

The performance itself is smooth running and extraordinarily. There isn’t anything like the first time seeing plays become realities on stage. It was not the most intricate production I had ever seen, but this is the first time I had seen plays transform from words written in twelve-point Courier font to a real stage production.  It was magical, the evolution from words to developed characters to stage. Maybe, next year, with the right luck, I will get to see my written play turn into a reality unto itself on stage.

Work Hard, Play Harder

It’s quite simple, actually. Friday is a magical day. It’s a day to be around people you love. It’s a day to spend time with the people you really care about.

And who do you care more about then Creative Writers who have spent the last month slaving over their various 10 minute scripts?

Next Friday, April 12, in the Main Theater at SOTA, starting at 7:30 will be Playwriting Show, featuring the words and acting of SOTA’s Creative Writing department. It took a while to decide, (believe me, it was an intense battle of “play” puns), but our show will be titled Work Hard, Play Harder.

And we will play. We will play hard. Mark your calenders and prepare to get your socks knocked off so hard there’s holes in your shoes.

Tom’s Final Play

by Lizzie (’14)

Last year, one of our internships was teaching the students of Room 208, high school graduates with special learning needs. Part of our job was to work with the students to create a skit which we then performed in a brown bag for the school. Unfortunately for us, the students of Room 208 now gather at a different site but I thought it would be nice to reminisce. Here is a play that I helped edit. It was written by the student, Tom. You could call it a silly exploration of what it means to feel excluded or you could just call it a masterpiece.

Working with Tom was a pleasure, although it had its challenges, but then again, what doesn’t? I discovered that Tom could be pretty indecisive at time. The way we created the skit was by me presenting Tom with several different choices for the characters, plot, setting, etc. At times, Tom couldn’t decide between the choices, for example, if he wanted to write a skit about hot air balloons or playing ball, and there were even times when it felt like Tom was unmotivated to even make the decision. That was the hardest part because I occasionally felt like I was making the decisions and making the skit more about my ideas than his (and perhaps that was the reason why he was unmotivated originally—he may have felt it wasn’t his play). And of course, I was there as an editor, not a writer. However, despite those lapses in our creative process, which I often experience myself when creating a piece, Tom’s Play turned out to be truly Tom’s.

Tom’s Play

(Curtain Rises. Duck, Bike, and Clown are playing catch.)

CLOWN

I’m so glad we came today. You guys are my best friends.

 

DUCK

You guys are my best friends too.

 

BIKE

(Obviously ignoring DUCK)

Yeah, Clown you’re my best friend.

 

(They go quiet and awkwardly continue playing catch.)


BIKE

Hey Clown, I know a game we can play.

(Turning to DUCK)

But only two people can participate.

 

CLOWN

Umm…I guess we could play. Duck, is that OK with you?

 

DUCK

(Obviously hurt)

Yeah, you guys can play.

 

(CLOWN and BIKE begin to play their two-person game, which is just catch. DUCK gets upset and runs off stage sniffling. CLOWN and BIKE continue playing until CLOWN realizes DUCK has left.)

CLOWN

Hey, where did Duck go?

 

BIKE

It doesn’t matter.

 

CLOWN

It does to me. What if she’s lost?

 

BIKE

She’ll find her way back on her own. Let’s not waste time trying to find her.

 

CLOWN

You know, I’ve been getting the feeling that you don’t like her.

 

BIKE

I don’t like her.

 

CLOWN

Why don’t you like her?

 

BIKE

Because she never talks to me

 

CLOWN

What? She’s always talking to you.

 

BIKE

Yeah, but one time I saw her on the bus and she didn’t say hi to me.

 

CLOWN

She probably didn’t notice you…Come on! We got to go find her.

 

(CLOWN and BIKE run off stage. DUCK walks on stage from opposite direction. She sits down in the center of the room and quietly cries. CLOWN and BIKE run on from the side DUCK entered.)


CLOWN

What’s wrong, Duck?

 

DUCK

You and Bike made me feel left out!

 

BIKE

That’s only because you’re mean to me!

 

DUCK

How am I mean to you?

 

BIKE

You ignored me on the bus!

 

DUCK

That’s only because I thought you didn’t like me!

 

BIKE

WHAT?

 

CLOWN

Whoa, whoa, whoa! I think we have a little miscommunication going on here.

(Turns to audience)

Bike thinks that Duck doesn’t like her because she ignored her but Duck ignored her because she thinks Bike doesn’t like her. What do you think? Whose fault is it?

(CLOWN waits for audience to enter. No matter what the audience says CLOWN will continue like this)

You’re right, no one! Now that we’ve realized it’s no one’s fault, no one has to apologize, no one has to be mad, and everyone can play catch!

(CLOWN throws ball into air and curtain closes)