New Plays Festival To Showcase Student Plays
by Dawn Marie Howell


For the past few years, UCSB’s stellar Theater and Dance Department has offered student playwrights the chance to have their works produced in the New Plays Festival. As in previous years, the plays on both bills look to be thoroughly thought-provoking and innovative. This reporter had the opportunity to sit down briefly with each of the playwrights to discuss the plays and their perspectives on the writer’s role in the production as a whole.

On Bill A of the festival, is Shannon Sullivan’s ANTIBIOSIS:, a play about a love which grows between a brother and sister. “The play is about love,” Sullivan insists. “It’s about a love that is not all supposed to be a negative, incestual relationship. It is beyond that, and really beyond words.” Sullivan said her inspiration came from her astronomy calendar, specifically a picture of two galaxies colliding. “I read up on what is called an intergalaxy collision, when two stars in the same system collide,” said Sullivan. “I thought, ‘What if two people from the same family were to do the same?’” From this initial idea, Sullivan melded together several other sources of inspiration and constructed a play meant to be character oriented. As a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts student and veteran monologue writer, Sullivan maintains that her previous theatre experience helped her create characters that are interesting for her actors. Sullivan has also performed in past festivals although this is her debut as a playwright in New Plays.

Jessica Fleitman’s comedy The Average-Sized Mermaid also appears on Bill A. Fleitman drew inspiration from her classes on children’s literature and literary theory. “I decided to work with the story I had hated as a kid: Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’” Fleitman said. “I examined it from a feminist perspective, looked at the symbolism, and then worked on the scenario of the play.” Fleitman’s play centers around a kindergarten teacher who has been dumped by her fiancé, after which she discovers how her life and the story of Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” connect. The Average-Sized Mermaid is as much a critique of the story itself as it is a criticism of overanalyzing. “The play is about how making all of these connections and hiding behind symbolism is really doing this character a disservice. The play is about learning to love again even after something painful.” This is Fleitman’s first time being produced in the festival, although she has been writing plays since high school and produced her one-act Deuteranomaly last quarter through Monstrous Little Productions.

On Bill B, Bellows by Nathan Kuljian offers the story of two people from remarkably different backgrounds. A senior English major and a first-time playwright, Kuljian drew inspiration his from people he had come in contact with. “I went to this lecture by a woman from Mexico who abandoned her daughter to come here. I thought it was remarkable how that decision, though it seemed to make her life better at the time, has come to hurt her so much.” While this character struggles with her decision, the other character, a Vietnam veteran, struggles with his skewed perception of himself. “He claims, openly, that he loves his wife, but he’s really very cruel to her. I thought it would be interesting to see that dynamic.”

Also on Bill B are the plays Winter Fruit and The Blue Elephant, both of which are adaptations of previous stories. In Winter Fruit, Allison Menzimer explores the theme of love through her rendition of the Persephone myth. “I have always been a fan of Greek mythology because the gods are so human,” Menzimer said. “I didn’t really modernize the story per se, but just wanted to use it to talk about being in between two places and the love of two people.” Menzimer is a BFA student and this is her first time being produced for the festival. Stacy Johnstone’s The Blue Elephant adapts Ann Fessler’s “The Girls Who Went Away,” a book that offers a series of tales about unwed mothers in the 1950s-1960s who were more or less forced to go away and have their babies. Johnstone incorporated several of the tales but focuses the play’s action on one woman in particular. “It’s an amalgam of the different experiences of these women,” Johnstone related. “I also added a man into the picture to make the story less one-dimensional and try to work in his perspective.” This is Johnstone’s first time having one of her plays produced, although she has had other works read in the past.

The writers all stressed how well their directors and actors have worked with the material. As Kuljian described, “This experience has been invaluable for a writer. It really gives you a perspective on how the actors work with the material and it teaches you to be aware of them as you write.” Sullivan similarly commented, “It has been good to see how the actors work with the material and to see how they progress each week.” Each playwright also had wonderful things to say about the dialogue between themselves and the director. “I feel so fortunate when it comes to my director,” Fleitman said. “Tracy actually kept me from rewriting too much so that the actors could be allowed time to go through their process.”

All in all, the writers are quite excited to see their words come to life in the coming weeks. The New Plays Festival will open May 22 and run until May 31. Tickets for each bill are available at the Theater and Dance Box Office: $17 general admission; $13 student/staff/senior citizen; $20 for students to see both bills.
Come and check out these exciting new performances, homegrown here at UCSB.