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

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

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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