The science of playwriting – Chicago Reader

Lucas Bigos was not a theater kid in high school—never in drama club, never in the school play. But something clicked his senior year at Lane Tech. That’s when he took a theater class at his high school to satisfy an elective requirement. A year later, the non-theater kid, currently a first-year student in computer engineering at UIC, is one of three young playwrights whose work is being premiered at Pegasus Theater Chicago’s 36th annual Young Playwrights Festival.

The germ for his play, Terms and Conditions, came to him while he was setting up an online account on Etsy. “I saw the terms and conditions list on their [signup page]Bigos tells me, speaking carefully, measuring each word, sounding very much like the clear-thinking, cool-headed engineer he would like to become. “And I thought about how there are other companies like Amazon where there’s so many things in the terms and conditions list that you probably don’t read but probably are pretty important. You just say yes without even a thought. I wanted to do something with that.”

The play that Bigos wrote impressed his teacher Kirsten Hanson. “It’s really futuristic,” Hanson enthuses. “It’s kind of Orwellian in what happens when this artificial intelligence takes over our lives. We sign off on those terms and conditions so quickly, we never read them carefully. This character checks the box, and then this AI takes over his life from him. It was a really great play. When I saw it I did approach Lucas, and I’m like, ‘You really need to submit this to Pegasus [Theatre’s Young Playwright Festival].’ And I think he was surprised.” He was even more surprised when he got word from the Young Playwrights Festival that his play by him had been accepted.

36th Young Playwrights Festival
Preview Wed 1/4 7:30 PM, opening Sat 1/7 7:30 PM, then Fri 7:30 PM and Sat 3 and 7:30 PM through 1/28, Chicago Dramatists, 765 N. Aberdeen, 773-878 -8864, pegasustheatrechicago.org, $15-$30

On the bill with Bigos is Elliott Valadez. Oddly enough, Valadez is also a first-year engineering student, at U of I in Urbana-Champaign. In high school, he was also not in any way a drama club kid. He didn’t even think of himself as a writer when he submitted his play to the Young Playwrights Festival.

“I was not expecting anything to come of this,” Valadez tells me. Valadez does not sound like an engineer; he sounds like that earnest, enthusiastic A student who routinely raises the curve on the final. He is so upbeat he practically sings when he speaks. “When I learned that there were actually things that were coming from this, I was just over the moon and it was immediately like, oh man, this is happening.”

“I have not really had very much experience writing,” he admits, grinning. “I am not an English major. I am actually an aerospace major.” The play that got him into the festival, Dead Boy Walkingwas the first play he had ever written.

Like Bigos, he wrote the piece his senior year in a required elective course (creative writing), at Whitney Young. “So we did everything from poetry to playwriting,” Valadez chirps, “and this [his winning play] was like our big final project at the end of the year.” Valadez, too, was prompted by his teacher of him, Elizabeth Danesh, to submit his play of him. And like Bigos, he made the final three.

In contrast, Jonathan Soco, the third young playwright in the festival, es very much a theater kid. He speaks in the deep, resonant, reassuring tones of a seasoned anchorman. (Think a young Bill Kurtis.) He seems to know the power of his voice—he is studying broadcast journalism at the University of Indiana—but he is not vain about it. He has been performing in musicals since the sixth grade and appeared in productions every year at Lane Tech, where teacher Julie Allen encouraged him to submit his play by him. Most notably, he played the narrator (of course) in the school’s production of Into the Woods.

“My play is called Another Star in the Sky,” Soco explains. “It is a sort of sci-fi future play about these two scientists who are working aboard a space station when aliens start trying to invade [the Earth] and [the scientists] have to find a way to stop them and potentially save all of humanity.”

So what accounts for the high percentage of students with little to no prior experience in theater getting into the fest? Is this a regular thing with the Young Playwrights Festival?

In a way it is. The Young Playwrights Festival is, by design, a tailor-made event for adolescents who are very much a work in progress, still growing, and still discovering who they are. It is hard to predict what they will do next or how they will develop. Students who think of themselves as engineers (as Bigos and Valadez do) may also be nascent theater artists. Or vice versa.

For 36 years the Young Playwrights Festival has been working to guide would-be writers, kindle their creativity, and turn them into young playwrights. And then they showcase the best of the best in a full, professional production.

The process used by the folks at Pegasus Theater Chicago, which founded the festival in 1986 (back when the company was called Pegasus Players) and continues to run it, has been refined over the years. But the basic structure remains the same: reach out to the high schools, work with students on their plays, invite students to enter the contest, pick the top plays, encourage another round of rewrites, and then produce the winners.

So they have something called a tour,” explains Lane Tech’s Kirsten Hanson, who has been working with Pegasus since 2007. “It’s actually like a workshop. They send a group of teaching artists and actors to different schools. They do a workshop on the six elements of playwriting. It’s very interactive. There’s a lot of humor involved. And then they actually perform a winning play [from a previous year’s festival].”

Some schools take it a step further and bring Pegasus in to work with the school. “At Lane Tech,” Hanson elaborates, “We actually get a resident teaching artist and playwright coming into our class, usually doing about ten workshops with students. I had Philip Dawkins in my classroom for two years. Now, he is, like, a nationally recognized playwright. [He wasn’t when he visited Hanson’s classroom.] He was a phenomenal teacher in my classroom.”

After the plays are finished, students are encouraged to submit to the festival.

Valadez recalls being prodded by his teacher to apply: “My teacher, Ms. Danesh—she’s a very huge supporter of the Pegasus Theatre—said, ‘Even if you aren’t really submitting with the intention of trying to actually compete, you should do this so that we can support the theater.’ I submitted without any kind of idea that this was going to happen. I was doing it because I put a lot of time and effort and love into writing something, and I wanted it to get read.”

Before the pandemic, Pegasus routinely received 800 or a thousand plays. “Teachers would drop off boxes of plays,” Pegasus Theater Chicago artistic director Ilesa Duncan recalls, adding that the numbers declined during and after lockdown “This year we received 300 entries.” (Entries are electronic now.) Volunteer theater professionals read the plays and write evaluations.

Duncan notes that the submissions that make it out of the first round go to a different set of readers who will read for a different set of criteria. “So now you’re basically going, ‘What works well for these plays?’ They really give them a rating and then give feedback to the student.”

From this second round, 40 to 50 students are invited to a revision writing workshop, held over the summer. Valadez credits this workshop with helping him craft a winning play. “I do not think I would have actually been picked as a finalist without that workshop process,” Valadez says. “In the first writing workshop I did with YPF, someone was like, ‘You write like a screenwriter, not a playwright.’ The differences between film and playwriting are a lot.” Valadez realized he was writing scenes that depended on cinematography to get his point across. There is almost no cinematography in the theater.

The workshop also loosened Valadez up. It was in the workshop that Valadez felt comfortable using his own experiences of him in his writing of him. “I took a step back and I thought, well, how do I make this feel more genuine?” Valadez explains, “I realized that I could draw off of my own experiences with unhealthy friendships and codependency and turn the relationship in the original script [between a lonely boy and a ghost girl] into something that was kind of drawing off of experiences with people who are toxic, even if their motivations for being that way are not necessarily out of malice.”

Jonathan Soco, too, credits the Young Playwrights workshop with expanding him as a theater artist. “A lot of my understanding of really writing a play [came from] my drama class. [But] I learned so much more from YPF. They taught me a lot of unique techniques and skills that I hadn’t even thought of.”

Chicago playwright Gabriella Bonamici, who had her play performed in the 2009 edition of the festival, told me “[YPF] It was just a very eye-opening experience for me as a young person. I had always written kind of secret in my journals, just for fun. And to see my work actually being taken seriously by adults and professionals and then shared with people and enjoyed by people was really special. It made me realize that this was a thing that could be shared with other people.”

Bonamici made theater her life. She currently works for Pegasus as a program associate and is a playwright in residence with small theater company Three Cat Productions.

But not all participants in the festival aspire to a life in the theater. Valadez may love the fact that his play de él is being performed, but his heart de él belongs to the Grainger College of Engineering. “I’m hoping to get involved with ionic propulsion for satellites,” he tells me. “We have an electron propulsion lab at U of I, and I hope to work on that, developing new techniques for electron propulsion for small, unmanned vehicles in outer space.”

He pauses a moment to think and then adds with a big smile, “But I would love to continue to take classes in writing. I love doing new things. I love trying different kinds of art. I consider myself as much of an artist as I am a scientist—and vice versa.”

Thanks to the Young Playwrights Festival.

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