A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival 2020: A virtual portal into the theatrical realm

Alice Nguyen | Contributing Writer

At 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16, a calendar notification popped up on my screen: “Now Happening: ‘Cheryl Robs a Bank: An Evening of Dramatic Entertainm…’” arbitrarily cut off by some robots. I clicked on an illegible sequence of characters and numbers, processes started and ceased, the mechanics of which are beyond me, and within moments I was transported to the world of theatre. 

This year’s A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival took the form of a virtual live streaming event. Upon clicking on a Zoom link, viewers saw a short slideshow with names of the playwright, cast, director, dramaturg, production team and synopsis—information similar to what a playbill would contain. A short video soon began to play in which Playwright-in-Residence Carter W. Lewis addressed the virtual audience and humorously commented on the spatial ambiguity that the online format has enabled. Unable to come together in the same physical space, audience members and performers experienced the theatrical world in their own living rooms—any room really—with or without popcorn, possibly unwrapping a million layers of candy wrappers in between acts. 

Courtesy of the Performing Arts Department

The flyers from this year’s all-virtual A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival. This year was the first year for the festival after Hotchner died in February.

Performances started with the narrator (Festival Assistant senior Abby Smyth) introducing the characters and staging. The narrator continued to lead audiences from scene to scene, describing stage directions that actors could not perform from a distance. Within their Zoom boxes, actors convey their characters, often brilliantly, through their voice, facial expressions and a few gestures that can be seen from the chest up. 

This year, the A.E. Hotchner Festival opened with “Cheryl Robs a Bank: An Evening of Dramatic Entertainment in Play Form by Cheryl Pryor,” written by graduate student Holly Gabelmann. The play follows the vivacious and amiably chaotic Cheryl Pryor (junior Leah Coleman) as she goes from bank teller to robbery accomplice to prisoner and murder suspect. One fateful morning, Cheryl is helping the seemingly innocent client Lola Campbell (freshman Sidney Speicher) when Robert Aaron Banks (graduate student Luis Chavez) barges in and, naturally, robs her bank. Instead of surrendering her money like a normal person, Cheryl begs Rob to take her with him, along with Lola as their hostage. As these three strangers journey together, they learn each other’s true identities and backstories, and questions of trust and loyalty arise. 

Alongside notions of deception and secret history, the play’s meta-theatrical structure adds to this confounding of truth and reality—the story as we know it is a play within a play, directed and narrated by Cheryl, who only knows her side of the story. At times Cheryl would step out of the scene, breaking the fourth wall, often being upfront about what she does not know and even the difficulties of production, complaining at one point that Lola has to play all of the secondary characters because the budget is tight. Cheryl Pryor, who fantasizes about being a criminal couple with Rob, represents a consumer who has bought into the world of theatrical romance and television drama. Beneath the humor and charm, the play showcases an unraveling of a woman’s fantasies, a dream of an extraordinary life turned into a nightmare. 

Saturday afternoon performances included “Women Eating Cake” by senior Elizabeth Phelan and “The Five-Year Reunion” by WU alumnus Ike Butler. “Women Eating Cake” is this year’s ten-minute play and it follows the conversation of three young women while they eat cake on a warm, sunny day. High school friends Sophie (sophomore Chloe Kilpatrick) and Anna (freshman Duryn Dunbar) are joined by Sophie’s college roommate Caroline (sophomore Brenna Jones). Harmless chatter about old friends they barely remember turns into profound probings in no time: “Isn’t it funny,” Sophie asks, “how we can love people so deeply and just let them slip away like that?” From existential questions to personal relationships, the death of koi and the death of friends, abortion to menstruation to questioning your own innocence, the women’s conversation carries enormous weight and vulnerability despite its seamless execution. Yet the most striking and profound takeaway, at least for me, has to be their reflections on what it means to be a woman. “To be a woman is to be scared. To be a woman is to desire but having your desires uprooted,” Sophie speaks in the final words of the play. “To be a woman is to hear the fishbone words the world yells at us and learn not to feel them.” 

Immediately following “Women Eating Cake” was Butler’s “The Five-Year Reunion.” The performance opened with a sex-scene-gone-wrong between Dawn (sophomore Isabel Koleno) and Trip (sophomore Dylan McKenna), who used to hook up in high school but have since parted ways. We learn that Dawn left her hometown for San Francisco, but upon getting fired, she returned to live with her mom Caroline (graduate student Olivia Jacobs). Trip, on the other hand, has held down a stable job while always dreaming of a faraway vacation. The impending reunion prompts their reflections on their station in life, each learning to reconcile with who they are. As the story unfolds, Dawn and Trip come to realize what home means to them, their true desires and what they mean to each other. Dawn and Trip, along with their friends PJ (senior Chriss Gauss) and Murphy (sophomore Jason Lyons), embody the existential dread and uncertainty that often plague young adults, who nevertheless journey forth in search of belonging. 

The closing performance of this year’s Hotchner Festival was “Grand” by Sophie Tegenu, a modern day recontextualization of the literary classic “The Great Gatsby.” Nicole Brooks (senior Naomi Blair) is a young Black banker on Wall Street and talented artist, who finds herself in an elite social circle with her lover Jordan Baker (sophomore Raevyn Ferguson), star actress Joanna Julian (graduate student Faith Washington-Flowers), college friend Dustin Chamberlain (junior Nathaniel Holmes) and his fiancée Lily Rockefeller (senior Emma Flannery). 

Tegenu’s fascinating remake reimagines Gatsby as the talented Black actress Joanna, who is a symbol of a particular version of the American dream: to be a Black person who is both “larger than life” and “larger than race.” The play is rife with conflicts as characters plunge into romantic affairs and deceptive ploys, each preoccupied with ideas of themselves that are tied to their class, race and gender. Notions of difference, privilege, access and American exceptionalism underlie each and every interaction. Characters expose each other’s hypocrisy while also exposing themselves—their dark motives, lies and illusions. “Grand” is a masterful retelling of an American classic, one that dares to challenge entrenched classist and racist notions of Americanism. 

I left each performance reeling with a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts, plunging headlong into a nostalgic remembrance of the theatre world pre-COVID. As we settle for what Zoom can do for us, virtual theatre becomes a source of sustenance, an escape from stasis into another dimension where there is movement, growth and transformation, imaginary as it may be. 

Editor’s note: The Hotchfest plays will be available for viewing at this link through Oct. 31.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.