REFLECTION

by Cristina Lopez

 

My first brush with playwriting took place when I was nine years old. I was in fourth grade, the gateway year for our school district’s ACE program, which offered a number of special enrichment classes. Not one to miss out on any educational opportunity, much less a free one, my mom instantly signed me up for the playwriting course despite neither of us knowing much about the subject.

“What’s playwriting?”

“You write plays.”

“Anything else?”

“. . . I’m sure your teacher will tell you.”

Nonetheless, the course turned out to be much less confounding than I expected. Once a week for around a month, I got to skip regular classes (Hooray!). Along with several other students, I would then spend the next two hours scribbling chaotic snippets of dialogue onto a yellow legal pad under the watchful eye of a local veteran playwright.

That year, inspired by a children’s book about medieval Europe I’d just read, I wrote a play about a young girl who challenges the traditional gender roles of her community by choosing to follow the footsteps of her father, a blacksmith, rather than her mother, a baker. With all the abundant creativity of a nine-year-old, I dubbed the play “The Blacksmith’s Daughter”. I finished formatting and editing the play, sealed it up in a big manila envelope, and sent it off to the New Jersey Young Playwrights Contest.

Some time after that, my family received the big news: my play had been one of those selected to be read aloud at the festival that year! As a first-time playwright, the news was astounding, almost unbelievable to my nine-year-old self. People had actually liked my play? Not only that, but they’d liked it enough to consider performing it? It was an indescribable feeling, warm and fuzzy and tinged with wonder.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the days leading up to the festival itself. I didn’t have my own email address yet, so it was my mom who acted as an intermediary and ferried most messages from the contest organizers to me. I also wasn’t involved in the rehearsal process, so when we arrived at Kean University on the day of the performance, I felt nervous. I had no idea what to expect.

Despite my pre-performance jitters, the readings all went smoothly. The only rough patch occurred at the end of The Blacksmith’s Daughter, when I abruptly remembered the unbearably corny, cheesy concluding joke I’d written. As the actors onstage read the dreaded words aloud, I sank into my seat, engulfed in the flames of pre-adolescent self-loathing and embarrassment. Still, I enjoyed the festival a lot.

More than my own, perhaps, the other plays left a lasting impression on me. Those written by older playwrights, mostly junior high students, left me especially in awe. Watching them made me wonder whether I’d be able to write a play as moving or as poignant when I became an eighth-grader. To a wide-eyed fourth-grader, those heights seemed immeasurably far away. One of the plays, The Art of Interrogation, made me laugh until my sides ached, and I spent a long time after that day chasing after the same breezy, effortless sense of humor in my own writing.

I didn’t stop writing plays after that. My school district offered ACE classes from fourth to eighth grade, so I had a solid reason to write at least one play a year. None of my plays were selected for the festival, but I wasn’t deterred in the slightest. I loved going to playwriting class and getting advice from my instructor and classmates. I loved listening to our rough drafts being read aloud. I loved the feeling of quiet satisfaction that I got from sitting in front of my computer monitor, staring at the newly typed words “THE END” on my latest play. I also couldn’t wait until summer arrived and I received readers’ feedback.

For me, the end of eighth grade meant not only graduating middle school; it also seemed to mark my unofficial graduation from playwriting. In Chatham, ACE classes aren’t offered to high school students. This, coupled with my busy course-load, led me to stop playwriting for good—that is, until quite recently, when my 11th grade creative writing teacher told our class about our upcoming playwriting unit. (She also informed us of a familiar one-act play contest that she invited us to consider entering, wink wink.)

Another CHS junior, Jack Kimber, had had his play, Listen, selected for the festival when we were both in 10th grade. Before we began writing our own plays, my creative writing classmates and I read Listen and several other short plays in class for inspiration. One aspect about Listen that struck me was its use of only two characters. All my past plays had had fairly large casts of at least three characters. With this play, I decided I wanted to experiment and try to depict a conversation between only two characters as well.

After exploring a number of eclectic topics—bullying, circuses, blindness, faulty first impressions—over the past few years, I came finally full circle: I wrote another historical play. This time, I took the advice from TBD’s readers to heart: I researched my chosen historical era with pedantic fervor, incorporating speakeasies and 20’s slang and soda fountains into the piece. It was on an unassuming day in February that I learned Uncovering Moonshine had been selected to proceed to the final round. Later on, after frantic last-minute revisions, more thrilling news arrived: my play had been selected for the festival – again!

I was a much more active participant in preparing for the festival the second time around. In fourth grade, I’d essentially shown up on the day of the performance going in blind. This time was different.

Perhaps most notably, I got to attend all of the rehearsals. There, I met the directors and actors, as well as the staff of the Writers’ Theatre. After being unintentionally separated from the other high school playwrights at the Governor’s Awards ceremony, I also got a chance to say hello again and relearn everyone else’s names. On the first day, all of us—playwrights, actors, directors, staff—crowded around in a circle of folding chairs to listen to a read-through of each play. Later on, we broke up into smaller groups to work on each play individually.

Superlatives almost always strike me as being over-the-top and/or disingenuous, but I really do think that everyone involved was amazingly supportive and encouraging. This was especially true of the director for my play. From the first time he heard it to the night of the performance itself, he unfailingly laughed at every single joke in my play—and even some lines I hadn’t realized were funny. Though I knew I had a long way to go to reach The Art of Interrogation-level heights, it made me happy to know that someone found my feeble attempts at humor to be mildly entertaining. His input was also invaluable when it came to blocking and figuring out how to seamlessly engineer scene changes.

Listening to the actors read my play aloud was also immensely helpful. By having other people read my work, I was able to sit back and pick out which sentences were tongue-twisters—unwieldy and convoluted and hard to say. By the end of Day One, my script was already covered with pencil marks flagging problematic lines. (For the first time, I also got to hear someone else’s impression of what my character’s affected film noir accent sounded like, which was pretty neat!)

After seeing first-hand how much time and energy went into setting up and preparing for the festival—as well as personally participating in the process—it was really rewarding to see how everything—props, lighting, sound—came together in the end when the night of the official performance finally arrived. It was eye-opening to witness the gradual evolution of the festival, and overall, I truly enjoyed the experience! ☺