In 2020, Spencer Kahn (12) was inspired to write his play “Think Tank” after a conversation with Theatre Teacher Haila VanHentenryck in front of the fish tank in Lutnick Hall, he said. “We had this long conversation making up fish society and what was going on inside this tank,” he said. He wanted to create a play that combined a fantastical concept like talking fish with complex human ideas. His play was chosen as one of the four One Acts to be performed in February 2022.
The One Acts are a group of four plays that are written, directed, and acted in by students every other year. Each student in VanHentenryck’s playwriting class submitted a One Act play during the last two years. The submitted plays are then read by a committee of anonymous teachers who pick four plays to be produced.
This year, the four plays are “Cosmic Cleanup Crew,” by Liliana Greyf (12), “Canceled,” by AJ Walker (12), “Till Death Does Its Part,” by Tess Abraham ’21, and “Think Tank,” by Spencer Kahn ’20.
“Cosmic Cleanup Crew” is a coming-of-age story about a friendship between two teenagers who meet in an ice cream shop. Greyf has always been interested in narratives on identity and wanted to write a story about friendship that was deliberately not about falling in romantic love, she said.
Walker was inspired to write “Canceled,” a satire about cancel culture set in high school, since he and his friends were always talking about it, especially during the pandemic, he said. “I thought it would be really interesting to kind of poke fun at it and also make people question what it is and what its role is in society.”
“Till Death Does Its Part” is a drama about an impassioned family gathered to celebrate their matriarch’s birthday. “I started it out as a character study on different archetypes and how different people interact with each other and human relationships and stuff like that, and then it came together as a play about family,” Abraham said.
Lastly, “Think Tank” is a dramedy about a group of fish living in a tank until a mysterious entity called the Nibbler starts to eat them, Kahn said. The fish then discover they are living in a tank and suffer an existential crisis.
Walker typically generates ideas for his plays from titles he creates, he said. “I have a Notes app document where I write down a bunch of titles that I think would be really interesting, and I take one of those and think ‘okay, what story does this title tell?’ Then, that’s how I start writing.”
In his plays, Walker tries to comment on an idea that he finds interesting in the world around him, he said. He asks himself, “How can I write this in a way that will be entertaining, but that also says something real about the world that we’re living in?”
Walker has fine-tuned his writing process to work for him, he said. He always writes his plays in chronological order and does most of the writing in his head before he begins to type up the script, he said. “By the time I sit down to write, I pretty much know what is going to happen, and then it’s about what the characters are going to say.”
In contrast, Abraham’s process is dialogue-driven. She likes to think about a character’s essence and what they would say in any given scenario, she said.
In “Till Death Does Its Part,” Abraham wanted audience members to feel an incredibly deep connection with at least one of the characters in the play, she said. “I wanted to have a variety of different characters from the kindest character to the [meanest] character that people love to hate, or hate to love,” she said. “It’s about the dialogue for me and bouncing characters off of each other.”
Greyf starts writing with an idea for a scene, a conversation, or a very specific situation, she said. When writing “Cosmic Cleanup Crew,” she had to outline the play before writing it since it was longer than anything she had written previously, Greyf said. “I ended up outlining it a million times and rewriting the whole thing a million times.”
Greyf originally wrote an entirely different play for her playwriting assignment but “got super stumped, had really horrible writer’s block, and felt super unmotivated to finish the work,” she said. She decided to write a new play in a matter of days before the assignment was due, she said.
When Walker is faced with writer’s block, he often texts Greyf and asks her for advice on what to do, he said. Writer’s block usually happens when he comes to a part of the play that he did not completely think through, he said. “A lot of times, those are the most fun moments because then I don’t have time to stop and edit myself. I just have to write something,” Walker said. “Anytime I encounter a moment that I hadn’t given much thought to before, I write the first thing that comes to mind and most of the time that’s the best stuff because it’s unfiltered.”
Writer’s block appears when Kahn is not invested in what he is writing, he said. “Sometimes you get an assignment you think is boring and you just don’t want to write it,” he said. “If you find an idea or you’re convinced what you’re doing is something that you want to tell or you’re committed behind what it is, then writer’s block isn’t usually an issue.”
One of Greyf’s main takeaways from the playwriting process is that you cannot control how the audience will experience the play, she said. “What I’ve done is just notes for the actors and the director and a basic plot, but everything else is done by the other people and the audience can perceive it however they wish.”
Playwrights give their work away to a director, actors, costume designers, set designers, and eventually the audience, who will each experience it in their own way, VanHentenryck said. “Playwriting is giving the world this blueprint of an experience that other people will have.”
The playwriting class stresses collaboration and tries to get students to read each other’s writing and work together on plays as much as possible, Greyf said. “It’s a super collaborative process, and so [VanHentenryck] makes sure that we’re constantly working together both on the plays themselves and also on the ideas and the playmaking process.”
Students had many chances to share their work in class, Walker said. “At the beginning of the year, I definitely didn’t want to share anything because it can be really scary, but the environment of that class was just so safe and so supportive, that by the end of the year, I had them reading everything.”
The class forces students to get used to sharing their work with others very quickly, VanHentenryck said. “It also forces students to learn to receive other people’s work, which is not something we do a lot.”
Abraham appreciated how her playwriting classmates challenged her on what she wrote, she said. “It’s really great to have different input and voices and have people kind of push back on something you’re writing like, ‘hey, that doesn’t really sound right,’ or ‘why does this character do this?’”
Greyf said that these types of discussions are necessary so she can hear what others like, do not like, and what they think needs to be changed. While writing her play, Greyf sought feedback from Walker, her classmate, she said. “I take inspiration from whatever it is that he’s written, and he also gives me his own feedback, and points things out that I haven’t even noticed.”
Walker feels as though he needs to let others interpret his work as they see fit, he said. While he feels the urge to put his own stage directions on the page, he tries to take a step back and leave that up to the director, he said.