UD Playwriting classes hold staged readings


Arushi Talwar and Athena Rem

Playwriting students had ten minutes — to  present a world of their own creation to the school community. This Tuesday and Thursday, members of the Horace Mann Theater Company (HMTC) performed staged readings of plays written and edited by students in the Upper Division (UD) Playwriting Class over Zoom.

Students performed eight plays on Tuesday and six more on Thursday. Each play was ten minutes long, posing a challenge for the playwrights, Madison Xu (10) said. “You can’t just capture a single moment like we do during our exercises in class,” she said. “You have to have a full plot with a beginning, middle, end, and a progression.” 

Xu’s play focused on two sisters from a wealthy family, now adults, who both live in New York City. “The focus of the play was the difference between [the]  sisters and how two people from the same background can become so different,” she said. Through her story, Xu wanted to highlight the day-to-day reality of the working-class in the city while incorporating the theme of the American Dream, a topic commonly discussed in her history and English classes, she said. 

In addition to lessons learned in school, both Xu and Tess Abraham (12) drew inspiration from TV and popular shows to create a story that truly interested them. While Xu initially found herself overthinking her story arc, once she came up with characters, the rest of the play came naturally to her, she said. 

Abraham started her play with a single moment — a couple at dinner — and built it from there. In her play, the character Jess proposes to Jane; however, Jane has fallen out of love and is disgusted by the proposal. The plot is reminiscent of traditional sitcoms from which Abraham drew inspiration.

As the students in the class learned, playwriting calls for more creativity than a traditional analytical essay does, theatre teacher Haila VanHentenryck said. “Unlike typical schoolwork, in playwriting, there is no right answer,” she said. “We have to unlearn academic class habits and relearn ones that are about trusting yourself.”

Aside from the occasional comedic piece, Ryan Rosenthal (12) is accustomed to writing non-fiction papers for his classes. However, in playwriting, Rosenthal challenged himself to write a play with more somber undertones. “I wanted to go out of my comfort zone and write something very serious.” 

Rosenthal’s play titled Hot Chicken Soup centered around a rapidly deteriorating relationship. The chicken soup serves as a metaphor for the formerly happy relationship, as characters Logan and Emily used to share the meal regularly. 

VanHentenryck encourages her students to part ways with their “inner editors,” the strict voices inside their heads that are accustomed to a different style and method of writing, she said. “I don’t want [them] to change their playwriting voice or their ideas,” she said. “I want to create an environment where their ideas can be showcased.” 

The literary and creative freedom apparent in the students’ plays exists in the class itself, Abraham said. The discomfort and vulnerability in “discarding our self-doubt and learning to trust ourselves” is a fundamental class goal, she said.

Although the stories and plots of each play differ, VanHentenryck’s help in developing each one was crucial, Abraham said. While revision is usually her least favorite part of the writing process, Abraham enjoyed the revision process, largely thanks to VanHentenryck, she said. 

The performance was the first time the playwrights saw their characters brought to life. New actors had a few days to learn the scripts and familiarize themselves with their respective characters. Since the plays were only staged readings, one weekend was enough time to prepare, Sarah Taub (11) said.

Taub acted in four plays, playing characters ranging from a young man about to graduate college to a girl in her senior year of high school. The plays had a variety of overarching themes, including high school and friendships, she said. “Some of them were funny and some of them were serious, but they all came down to those relationships.”

Jacob Shaw (11), who also acted in four plays, enjoyed the experience. “I never really thought of myself as much of an actor,” he said. Since actors didn’t audition for specific characters, Shaw had the opportunity to experiment with multiple roles.

Since the actors rehearsed little before the performances, there were several surprises throughout the course of the first evening. Shaw was caught off guard when one of the actors had to leave mid-production. With only a minute’s notice, he had to fill the role, he said. 

Rosenthal looked forward to seeing his own piece in a new light. “We only know our own mannerisms and how we tend to read characters, so it [was] very interesting to see how people who don’t know our own playwriting styles interpret our characters.”

Abraham was excited for the actors to understand her characters as intricately as she did, she said. She hoped the staged readings would make more people interested in taking the class. “The school’s course of studies is huge so people don’t really notice playwriting, but it’s a great space to workshop your creative ideas and to grow as a writer and to be more vulnerable with your writing and allow it to show who you are as a person,” she said.

Shaw, having taken the playwriting class himself, admired the playwrights’ dedication to the work. “For a lot of the playwrights, it’s their first time writing a play of this length,” he said. “It’s very cool, as a playwright myself, to see people who took the same class I took be able to express themselves.”