The show must go on: A. E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival continues on track for Fall 2020

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Last Wednesday, April 8, the Performing Arts Department released the names of the plays and playwrights selected to participate in next fall’s A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition & Festival. This year’s festival will include three full-length plays and one ten-minute play.

Though the public announcement came last week, the playwrights were notified at the beginning of March, almost a month earlier. One week after the playwrights were notified, Washington University’s campus closure due to coronavirus was announced.

“We got it in right under the wire,” Senior Lecturer in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) and head of the Hotchner Festival Carter Lewis said.

Because the festival takes place in the fall, it has not been substantially affected by the campus closure. “In a normal year, when we aren’t all quarantined, I would meet with each of the playwrights individually, and the directors would be a part of that, and we do sort of a dramaturgical session on the play with the playwright and talk about the play,” Lewis said. This meeting will have to take a different form this year.

Otherwise, the festival will run as normal. Sophie Tegenu, who participated in both this year’s and last year’s Hotchner Festivals, said she “was just very excited and thrilled to be able to participate in the festival.”

The other playwrights shared Tegenu’s reaction. Elizabeth Phelan, playwright of this year’s ten-minute play, said she is “so delighted and excited” to have been selected.

“The submission process involved a hard copy dropped off in the Performing Arts Department office. And I handed in the printed-off version of the script, and I handed it to the lady who was there and she put it on top of this huge pile of other plays that were being submitted, and I thought ‘Oh, there’s no way they’re going to pick mine,’” Phelan said. “And then they did!”

That ‘huge pile’ can consist of anywhere from 30 to 35 plays on the high end or 10 to 12 on the low end, Lewis said.

Phelan’s play, “Women Eating Cake,” leaves action behind to focus on dialogue and character. “It’s more focused around the dialogue between three women and the kind of complicated relationships they have with each other and their own identities. It’s a way to grapple with the idea of being an imperfect human and having all these expectations sort of baked into your existence,” she said. “Nothing happens, but it’s about humanity.”

This is the first year Phelan has participated in the festival, but her reasons for participating are similar. This is her second play, and her first was written during student theatre group Thyrsus’ annual playwriting contest, Day of Shame.

Phelan said of her experience with Day of Shame, “I was really surprised at how fun it was to watch the play that I wrote. I was really expecting it to be kind of mediocre, but the way it was received by the audience was such a delight and such a surprise that I wanted to write more and hopefully have another opportunity to see my play performed.” That experience led her to the Hotchner Festival.

Tegenu said her experience in last year’s festival inspired her to participate again this year. “[It] was such a wonderful experience that I wanted to do it again!”

This year, Tegenu’s play “Little Rooms” is “about the relationship that children of immigrants have with their parents and their sense of identity.” Told in two parts, the play takes place in 1970s Ethiopia and 2010s America.

The play draws heavily on Tegenu’s experience as the child of first-generation immigrants. “I was thinking a lot about what my parents’ lives were like when they were my age, and just how wildly different they were, and just the different ways we had of coping with things,” she said. “So it’s about the relationships we have with our parents and the expectations they hold for ourselves. And it’s kind of supposed to be funny.”

Tegenu fell in love with playwriting after taking Lewis’s class Introduction to Playwriting in her junior year. “I’m an English major, and have loved writing in different forms my whole life, but had never done playwriting,” she said. “It was really Carter’s class my junior fall that introduced me to playwriting, and [I] fell in love with it.”

Ike Butler also cited Lewis’s playwriting class, which he took as a freshman, as a major influence on him. That wasn’t his first experience with playwriting, though. In high school, he was heavily involved in theater and wrote a Harry Potter parody that his school produced. “ I guess playwriting started in high school for me, but it doesn’t really feel like it,” Butler said.

Like Tegenu, Butler has also participated in the Hotchner Festival before, in 2018. Despite that experience, he said he didn’t think this play would be selected.

I wanted to distill feelings and emotions and thoughts onto a page, and it worked out that it was in a cohesive narrative. But I really just wrote it for myself,” Butler said.

His play “Five Year Reunion” is “about a girl named Dawn who’s 23, down on her luck, just got fired, lives with her mom. She’s still hooking up with this guy from high school she’s not really into, and she doesn’t know how to move forward with her life. Everything seems to be keeping her back and it’s all happening right on the cusp of her five year reunion, which she is putting a lot of psychological weight onto,” Butler said.

Butler, as well as Phelan and Holly Gabelmann, another of the selected playwrights, said he used the Hotchner festival more as a personal deadline to complete the play. “If that deadline wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have finished it. It would still be sitting, 25 pages on my desktop or something,” he said.

The play all came together in early January. “I got back to school and wrote every night for a week and turned the play in half an hour before the deadline.”

Ultimately, Butler said that he loves the Hotchner festival because it’s “just the greatest joy of getting to see something I made performed and put up. It’s such a great way to workshop ideas.”

Gabelmann agreed. “It’s always very exciting to see something you’ve written come to life onstage,” she said.

Now a masters’ student in Theater and Performance Studies, Gabelmann has loved playwriting since her undergraduate days. During her undergraduate studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Gabelmann took a playwriting course, similar to Lewis’s course Tenegu and Butler took, and fell in love.

But for her, production wasn’t the goal of submitting to the Hotchner Festival. After receiving an email flyer for the festival, Gabelmann decided to participate to give herself a deadline. “I had a play that was sort of half-finished, and I was like ‘The deadline of the Hotchfest will give me something to work towards. I’ll get the play done and I’ll submit it,’” Gabelmann said, “And that’s what ended up happening.”

Gabelmann describes her play as “very quirky.”

“The play sort of tracks the journey of a bank teller named Cheryl, who, when her bank is robbed, instead of handing over money or calling the police, ends up convincing the bank robber to take her with him,” Gabelmann said.

“The whole play is framed as a story that’s told by Cheryl, so it’s a sort of interrogation of what’s real and what’s not, because Cheryl is narrating her own story. It’s never entirely clear what she’s making up, because the audience only gets to see what she saw. So there are lots of gaps in information, and sort of slippages and inconsistencies. And it’s about having to reconcile that with what’s being seen onstage.”

Gabelmann has had many plays produced, from her first play as an undergraduate at Trinity University to smaller plays in festivals.

My favorite part is getting to see what you’ve written be taken by a team of actors and the director, and then it becomes something totally different from what you expected, and it’s really cool,” she said.

That’s Lewis’s favorite part of the festival as well.

Lewis has run the Hotchner Festival for 21 years, redesigning it when he came to Wash. U. on the model of a festival he had previously run in New York. He has also competed in several festivals as a playwright. For any festival, he says, the best part is “watching a playwright realize what they have and getting excited about what they’re creating and actually going through this process.”

“It’s like [the actors and director] are shoveling coal into your oven, and you just get excited about that work and excited about working on it,” Lewis said.

Now that the playwrights have been selected, they will meet with their directors and spend the summer rewriting their plays. That rewriting process will continue through the weeks of workshop, working with the cast and with professional dramaturg Michele Volansky of PlayPenn, and rehearsals “pretty much up until [the play] opens in September,” Gabelmann said.

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