Collaborative Storytelling

UCSB New Plays Festival Moves to the Main Stage

by Felicia M. Tomasko

Naomi Iizuka has one of the most exciting and freshest voices in American theater today. She receives frequent commissions and is the recipient of a long list of awards. This weekend, Iizuka will be working behind the scenes to support a group of up-and-coming writers when UCSB produces the university’s New Plays Festival.

Although the festival is not new this year, 2006 is the first year that it will be a part of the UCSB Drama Department’s main-stage season. This allows the students to develop full-scale productions of their work. “For a playwright, it is vital to see one’s work on stage,” said Iizuka. While writing necessarily involves long hours alone with pen or computer, writing for performance is unique. “Playwriting is unlike other genres,” Iizuka continued. “It requires a lot of collaboration to realize the work onstage with actors and design.”

Students whose work is produced at the New Plays Festival are fortunate to have Iizuka as a mentor, since her life as a working playwright informs her teaching. “I face what they face: writer’s block, not knowing where a play is going, rewriting; then finding where it is going and seeing it through rehearsal.” Master’s degree student and playwright Hank Willenbrink raves about Iizuka’s tutelage. “She is one of the best playwrights working in America right now. She has a great sensibility about aesthetics … and a great eye for detail.”

Willenbrink’s play, 18, is one of the seven showcased at the festival. All the plays were written in Iizuka’s playwriting class. She describes the group as being exceptionally talented, and audiences who venture out to see the work performed will see new and cutting-edge writing on subjects ranging from relationships to robots.

David Largman Murray wrote Robots vs. Fake Robots, in which he takes robots out from the confines of science-fiction flicks and delivers them to a stage. “Robots aren’t something you expect to see onstage, but are used to seeing in a movie. Onstage, in person, it is very exciting,” Murray said. His tale also alters the sci-fi genre with an unusual twist — not the usual story of a robot wanting to become human. Instead, Murray decided to explore a different take by writing about a man who wants to become a robot.

Having a main-stage production will allow Murray to fully realize his vision. The play includes a dance sequence that required Murray to collaborate with a choreographer. Further collaborations included working with not only the actors and the director, but also the costume and set designers, giving him a feel for the process experienced by professional writers. Murray has now also experienced another aspect of professional playwriting — rewriting. After repeated rehearsals, he just rewrote the ending of his play.

Willenbrink, in 18, has also felt the power of writing and rewriting. This is particularly important for his story, which is focused on relationships, but is not told sequentially, and is instead ordered according to how we remember. We remember one thing, which then leads to another recollection that then spins off into something else. This form requires vigilance in the telling and actors willing to negotiate the disordered story. Murray commented on the change from solitary creation to collaborating with the other artists who help develop the vision. “Once the play is cast, you stop writing for the voices that are in your head, and start writing for the people you are working with.” The play morphs from a solitary exercise into a group effort.

Bonds forged in these group efforts can prove to be deep and lasting. Iizuka said that she continues to work with people she met while collaborating on writing and performance when she was earning her MFA from UC San Diego. So, on the UCSB stage, we may be witnessing the birth of some profound new working relationships. And, if the excitement of everyone involved is any clue, audience members should be prepared for a unique set of performances and some thought-provoking work.

4•1•1 UCSB New Plays Festival takes place May 19-27 at the Performing Arts Theatre. Call 893-3535.

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