Entering The Worlds of the Wagner New Play Festival

Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Theatre & Arts

“[The] message is hard.”

These words open my interview with Steph Del Rosso, Ava Geyer, Lilly Padilla, and Will Snider, playwrights in the UCSD MFA Playwriting program writing for the 2017 Wagner New Play Festival.

Padilla, a third year MFA Playwriting Candidate at UCSD, is responding to my question, “What message are you trying to get across with your work?”

She explains, “Whatever I’m processing, or working through as an individual…I’m somehow seeking to heal, or explore, in my own writing. So through doing that, certain themes, or points of view, will come through inherently, but it’s definitely not something I think of consciously.”

Del Rosso explains that for her, inspiration must be personal: writing with the audience in mind most likely won’t work. She clarifies, “I’m interested in manipulating the audience sometimes, but if that’s my main goal in creating, then I probably won’t be very effective.”

Geyer, a first year playwright in the MFA program, counters that sometimes she does begin with “an intellectual idea, or something that I’ve read”, but that ultimately her work becomes personal. She asserts: “You don’t have to go looking for it, the obsessions find you.”

When I ask them where their creativity stems from, and if they constantly have ideas brewing (at which they all laugh, and Snider jokingly says, “I wish”), I’m told that, interestingly enough, many of their ideas are animated by fears or anxieties.

Snider’s play “Strange Men”, which opens Thursday, May 11, concerns issues of Americans living abroad. He says that the play is based off of his own experiences and beliefs while living abroad in East Africa. Snider describes having “a sort of cognitive dissonance around the work that [he] did [in East Africa], and what [he] was taught or…believed”.

Del Rosso draws a clear line between what she considers personal and autobiographical, preferring to use the former. She also says that for her, the plays that are most compelling are those that are both “personal and vulnerable”characteristics that she strives for in her plays. The idea for “Are You There?” which opens Friday, May 12, originated from a phone conversation she had and later transcribed. She explains that through the process of creation, it has become a wholly new work. In other words, the phone call was only the “seed” that began the process.

(From left to right) Steph Del Rosso, Lily Padilla, Ava Geyer, and Will Snider. Photo courtesy of Layla Hanson.

(From left to right) Steph Del Rosso, Lily Padilla, Ava Geyer, and Will Snider. Photo courtesy of Layla Hanson.

Geyer notes that the collaboration process has been one of self-discovery, where being able to watch the actors’ work has allowed her to see more of herself in her work and understand her characters even more. Opening Friday, May 12, Geyer describes “Baby Teeth” as a play containing three characters that go to great lengths to avoid their emotions, each attempting to invariably “swerve” around their feelings.

Snider agrees with the view of collaboration as self-discovery, stating, “You actually start to learn things about your play you didn’t know when it was on the page.”

Padilla then chimed in with an Audre Lorde quote that she felt encapsulated her approach to her work: “‘When you reach out and touch other human beings, it doesn’t matter whether you call it therapy, or teaching, or poetry.’” Her play, “(w)holeness”, which opened Tuesday, May 9th, concerns sex addiction and the resulting support group her characters attend every Monday night. According to the director’s statement, “(w)holeness” asks an important question: can someone be too damaged to be loved?

When I asked Padilla if she had a response to that question, she said that there is a “conscious [or] intellectual answer, but also [her] emotional answer, and those two are in conflict, and that’s why there’s a play.”

When I inquired about the playwrights’ reasons for choosing their field, I received a wide range of answers. Snider, who majored in History with an emphasis on East Africa, noted that although he had initially regarded Theatre as an extracurricular, about two years into his post-graduate job, he decided to try pursuing playwriting as a career instead.

Geyer, however, began playwriting in her freshmen year of high school through one of her teachers. Her arts-based school viewed theatre majors purely as actors, and Geyer struggled to find a path that was more interdisciplinary, as she loved both acting and writing. Luckily, through her teacher, she was able to navigate a more unique direction and grow as a playwright.

Del Rosso similarly had an artistic upbringing, noting that she did quite a bit of community theatre, including the center line of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile” in “Annie”. She also explained that despite majoring in fiction, she gravitated less towards the “solitary” experience that writing a novel can bring, preferring the “collaborative experience of working with [her] audience and [her] team” that accompanies playwriting.

Padilla, after earning her BFA at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, interned at The Lark, an international theatre laboratory based in New York City. She said her “one dream, which was to be in a José Rivera play”, is what got her an internship at The Lark, where Rivera had a fellowship. From there, she began writing plays, and eventually got one produced, which Padilla says was an experience that she expected to be “unmatched”– that is, until the collaboration of “(w)holeness”, which she stated has been “an enormous gift”.

As our interview came to a close, the playwrights all had last thoughts. Snider noted, “We all teach classes, and there’s a mix of majors and non-majors, but what I always say to the non-majors is you can totally go into theatre as well.” This statement demonstrates the acceptance of a diverse set of majors that is typically inherent in theatre culture. In fact, in my own playwriting class, I am the only theatre major, but this doesn’t give me an advantage: non-majors have been bringing in incredible work, demonstrating an authentic talent for writing, often bringing a different perspective.

This also means that all majors can attend any and all of the plays that the Wagner New Play Festival has to offer and still have a profound takeaway. As Padilla put it, “It’ll be a good date” and “you’ll laugh at least once.” Or, as Snider put it, “You might even find yourself a date sitting next to you.”

If you still need a reason to go and enjoy these wonderful plays, keep in mind that you’ll most likely be able to meet the playwrights themselves. After my interview, I can guarantee having a conversation with Snider, Padilla, Del Rosso, or Geyer will be incredibly entertaining, perhaps as much as the plays themselves.

Tickets for the 2017 Wagner New Play Festival can be purchased here.

Layla Hanson is a Staff Writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of The Triton. She can be reached at lcrumple@ucsd.edu.