Anatomy of a play


    Multiple locations inside and outside San Diego.


    End of spring quarter and beginning of summer, 2002.


    Lights up on KEN devouring a No. 3 super-sized combo meal from McDonalds. Enter LAURA, staring intently at her PC screensaver. Across the country, enter JEFF, driving through the bizarre Yuma Desert. MAT enters, transfixed by Coldplay’s “”Parachutes”” album.


    Ostriches: Walk anywhere on campus and you are bound to see these creepy critters. At least, this is what the famously avant-garde UCSD Depatment of Theatre & Dance would hope for. Posters featuring ostrich heads are all part of a promotional campaign to endorse its annual New Play Festival.

    Ranked third by U.S. News & World Report, UCSD’s Department of Theater and Dance has garnered national recognition for its distinctly innovative and hands-on approach. The New Play Festival is just one example of why graduate theater in San Diego is unique.

    According to department chair Walt Jones, the idea of showcasing new playwrights was one of his original goals. “”I always thought that the festival feeling of celebrating a lot of plays was exciting,”” Jones said.

    Participants in the New Play Festival all agree on one thing: Theater is a collaborative process. Any behind-the-scenes look at a production must acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears of everyone involved. The following is a list of a few key players.


    “”Part of being a good playwright is having a lot of control and learning how to let go of control,”” said Ken Weitzman, a playwright.

    Weitzman says the process of writing began early for the playwrights involved in the New Play Festival. For the festival, each writer was approached to begin thinking about a new script sometime last summer.

    Some, such as Weitzman, take endless nights of eating at McDonald’s and incorporate them into a play’s larger theme of American consumption and fast-food culture. Others, such as Laura Henry, find revelations from unexpected places.

    “”The inspiration for this play was my screensaver,”” Henry said “”It shows Texas death row prisoners eating their last meals and I thought, ‘It would be sad if you worked in the prison kitchen as a French cook.””

    She is referring to “”There’s No Bayville in Texas,”” a show she aptly calls “”a play with music and not a musical.””

    For Jeff Hirsch, his inspiration for “”A Handful of Earth”” came from a cross-country road trip to California. “”I drove though a lot of desert around Arizona,”” he said. “”It’s such an incredibly bizarre locale. I guess that stuck with me and that’s where the play starts.””

    Hirsch describes the collaboration process as a wonderful way to help a new vision come to fruition.

    Not as heavily funded or publicized, the New Play Showcase features two one-act plays written by first-year graduate students.

    “”Pure”” writer Mat Smart said his play came about while trying to decide on buying a Coldplay album. “”I think they’re a bad band but I like their music. I stood there for like 45 minutes but later wondered why I was worrying about something so trivial.””


    Meredith McDonough finds it tricky to define a director in any context. “”I think you set the room so that you create an environment where people can do the best work they can do, and you try to facilitate them with your own ideas.””

    For her, the discovery of a brand new play with the playwright and production crew is most fulfilling. She credits her amazing cast from “”A Handful of Earth”” for creating such an ideal collaboration.

    “”I give ideas and they try them, but I can’t think of myself like, ‘everybody depends on me,’ because then I’d panic and get real stressed out. So this is just my job but it’s what I love to do,”” McDonough said.

    McDonough says the only drawback of producing for the New Festival is not having enough time. The tough part is making choices during preparation and rehearsals.


    Preparation for a role depends on each actor but some things are constant. Everyone still has to remember lines. For most, the process is simply a matter of repetition, something most actors have gotten very good at.

    Another aspect is finding the essence of the character. For everyone, the process starts by finding clues about the character in the text. Most of the actors had to remain very flexible because rewrites were frequent and often encouraged.

    A lot goes on behind the scenes that are both familiar and unusual. Here are just a few from this year’s productions:

    As the uptight Keith in “”Arrangements”” and the hip Milty in “”A Handful of Earth,”” Corey Brill describes how a bad case of the giggles can wreak havoc on stage.

    “”It’s hard to keep a straight face sometimes,”” Brill said. “”Mistakes don’t happen often but when they do it always happens on lines you never expect.””

    Christine Albright, who plays image-obsessed Ros in the same play, mentions the virtue of crossword puzzles. They were a favorite pastime among the cast during early rehearsals.

    According to “”There’s No Bayville in Texas”” actor Daoud Heidami, acting is “”about moments.”” He continues, “”It’s about what happens in this moment which propels you into the next moment. Our job is to make it present in that moment.””

    The New Play Festival is a collaborative effort, according to “”A Handful of Earth’s”” Alex Smith. For him, it offers the unique chance to work directly with a playwright. Many loved this opportunity because other plays deal only with scripts written by playwrights not present, or even dead.


    Keeping open lines of communication is among most stage manager’s chief tasks. As stage manager for the New Play Showcase, Doug Wong says the most difficult task is getting everyone together, especially on a new play with so many revisions. “”Stage managers help actors with lines. If they miss a line we let them know later,”” he said.

    He often comes in 30 minutes before rehearsals and stays 30 minutes after everyone has left. Setting up and taking down the set are one of his many responsibilities.

    Communicating with the different parties involved, such as set design, sound, and costumes is another one. Wong explains his job simply: “”My job is to make everyone happy.””


    Crucial to the production is the set the actors will perform on. After initial meetings between design team, the director, and playwright, the scenic designer starts with rough sketches, which eventually transform into fully functional sets.

    “”Arrangements”” and “”A Handful of Earth”” were logistical challenges because both used the same set, according to Ryan Palmer, scenic designer for both plays.

    Palmer usually starts with rough sketches after reading the script and consulting with the playwright and director. Afterward, models are made, and from them, fully functional sets are built. For “”Arrangements,”” Palmer wanted to to visualize its dark and light themes of ugliness and beauty with a two-part set featuring an upstairs and downstairs. Ultimately though, his job is to enhance the performances without overshadowing them.


    According to Scott Grabau, lighting designer for “”There’s No Bayville in Texas,”” his first job is to confer with the director after reading the script to get a feel for the production. After that, his objective is to develop lighting “”brush strokes”” that will support a play’s environment.

    The festival puts great demand on his team because it is very difficult logistically to produce six shows in such a short time.

    For Grabua, the collaboration is worth it. “”You don’t have to create in a vacuum,”” he says. “”The sharing of ideas can often make my work greater than it would be if I had to conceive it alone.””


    The unique challenge of “”There’s No Bayville in Texas”” was its use of over 200 props, including handmade prison uniforms. Because of the difficulty of obtaining the real thing, costume designer Jen Anderson created replicas by altering dickies. For Anderson, her job is a constant process of sculpting. Unlike building a set that is finished once it is on stage, costumes are constantly tweaked until opening night.

    Because her job includes hair and makeup, other challenges came up. Making eternally “”suave”” actors such as Heidami look dirty was one of them. “”We had the hardest time trying to mess up his hair without making him still look cool.””


    Creating five high-quality plays that until only a few months ago did not even exist is certainly no easy feat. The many people involved prepare for months before any official performance. Ultimately, what makes UCSD’s New Play Festival so grand is how it strives to make the act of collaborating its own reward, instead of a means to something external. Bravo!


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