Hometown: Los Angeles, California
This week I caught up with Benjamin Sprung-Keyser, who actually won the 2010 Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition and deferred participation in the conference until this year. He will be joining seven other playwrights at our upcoming Young Playwrights Conference to workshop his play, What All Schoolchildren Learn.
Hi, Ben! What time zone are you in right now?
Actually I’m on the east coast right now, on a train going from New York City back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had a week or so in between my second final and last final, and my parents were in New York City so I came down for a day to come see theater, and now I am headed back to study.
What did you see?
I saw the revival of On a Clear Day. I really liked it. It’s not a classical musical with big “ta-da” moments… in a lot of ways it is a really serious reworking of the previous version, but I think it works really well. It’s definitely worth seeing. I know [Peter Parnell] who wrote the book for it, he’s been friends with my parents for a long time. So I came down to see him and see it. I try to go to New York every year and see as many shows as I can see.
So you won the competition in 2010 for What All Schoolchildren Learn, and then you deferred participation in the conference for one year because you had ANOTHER once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Can you tell me about it?
It was a debate tournament. I was heavily involved in high school debate, and my style of debate was called Lincoln-Douglass debate. We had one round-robin tournament where they invited 12 debaters from around the country to debate for a weekend where everyone would debate against each other. It was the most prestigious of these kind of round-robins. So I had this horrible dilemma where I absolutely was not willing to miss the conference but on the other hand I really wanted to go to the debate tournament. And so when I got word from you guys that I could defer to this year it was absolutely the best of both worlds.
Congratulations! Are you keeping up with debate now that you are in college?
I am. The styles of debate change as you go from high school to college, so my big focus this year has not been kind of classic debate, but a style called College Fed. Challenge, which is debate on monetary policy—so it’s all economic. I will probably switch over to parliamentary debate for my second semester.
Have you ever done a debate about school bullying?
I don’t think that I have. Periodically topics about policy in middle schools come up, but it is more about cell phone usage or vending machines, but I don’t think bullying has come up. There are periodically abuse topics that come up—there was a current topic about the role of marital abuse and how people are allowed to respond to that, and there are periodically topics about whether or not we should criminalize emotional abuse—those kinds of topics come up about how we should react to unconventional kinds of violence.
Unconventional violence in bullying is addressed in your play, What All Schoolchildren Learn, that’s why I bring it up. In your play there is a very interesting situation set up between a younger boy, who is kind of on the small side, who is being bullied by a larger boy in a straightforward, physical way—perhaps in a way that we accept, in a way, and perceive as “normal”. But you really start to examine that issue and provoke us into a debate with our own preconceived notions with what then happens as the smaller boy retaliates. Can you talk a little bit about what he does?
Well, it’s based on an aggregation of real-life stories, someone had mentioned to me at one point a bullying occurred in a school where kids had taken advantage of the allergies of other kids—most specifically they took advantage of peanut allergies. And that is the retaliation that occurs in my play and I got the idea from this discussion. I went ahead and did some research and looked at a couple of different instances and found that although it’s not very common, this is something that happens every so often in schools around the United States. In the structure of the play itself, Charlie is the much younger boy who retaliates against the bullying he’s received by taking peanuts and threatening with them. The play becomes about everyone’s reaction to the things which Charlie has done and to Charlie’s unconventional violence. So the parents are split between the fact that they think Charlie did the right thing and he is justified in standing up for himself, and those who think what he did completely crossed the line and what he has done is unacceptable. My hope is that the play becomes about how those in power and those out of power react, and then how we judge their actions.
Definitely! So your sister, Madeline, won the competition as well (in 2009 for her play,Family Portrait). How is it that you both came to be such accomplished writers?
The story of how we each did it is slightly different, but I admit that the credit I give is to her. We both went to the same high school where [there was] a one-act play competition that people would write for. I think my sister had seen friends of hers, or siblings of friends of hers who got involved, and said this sounds like a great idea, I’m going to do it. So she wrote and obviously had a natural talent for it. And I decided to do it only after seeing her do it. So it was watching her first plays that motivated me to try it out.
So was that your first playwriting experience?
Exactly. So she had written in 10th grade and 11th grade so when I got into 10th grade I chose to write, so I wrote What All Schoolchildren Learn.
And did that win the one-act competition?
It did. They chose 10 or 11 plays and they put it up. It was all student run, student actors, student everything and so you got to see your work on the stage. The director was the one person that they brought in from the outside, so I got to work with a professional director.
That’s great. So you are coming into this conference having seen What All Schoolchildren Learn on its feet, so now you get to see a second cast and a new director interpret the work.
And that is really exciting! I am curious to see what, for you, comes across for you in terms of what is interpreted the same and what differences there are.
That is amongst the most exciting things about this for me. Even from performance to performance, as actors play different lines differently, as the audience interprets things differently, you get useful responses. And so the idea of having a whole new set of people interpret it—that for me is really exciting and I am really looking forward to it.
So is this the only play you have written?
No, I wrote on other one-act in 11th grade. It was also done at my school—it was done as a form of debate between different high school kids about the existence of God. It uses the debate about the existence of God as a mechanism for them to be able to talk about their own lives. So I wanted something that would allow functionally monologues without feeling like people were pulling out of reality to talk about themselves, and I thought that the format of a debate would be an effective way to do that.
And you know a lot about debate, as I just found out. Do you have any playwrights whom you admire or want to emulate in your own writing?
There certainly are, I have read a lot of different Tom Stoppard plays that I love, I’ve read Thornton Wilder plays and Arthur Miller plays and those are probably the ones I like the most…The way that they are able to express the emotions of people and get people to talk about themselves in a way that doesn’t feel forced. I particularly love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, because you understand the progression of those characters and when they are sort of spilling their souls in any way, that those are things that people would do—and that you can understand the complicated angst that all of them are experiencing. I think the ability to really earn the emotional height of a play is pretty important. Great plays ring true—you feel in some way a connection to it.
I asked you about pursuing debate on the college level. Are you also still writing?
I didn’t do any writing this semester, because things became so busy, but I plan on absolutely picking it up again next semester and into the summer. And that is part of why this workshop is just such a good opportunity because it motivates me again to get back into it… and throw myself back into this world.
Next week I interview playwright number eight, Hayley Tyler Chin, wrapping up our interview series.
Benjamin will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2012 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 4-12. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights Family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers. If you are interested in attending the readings contact us at reservations[at]youngplaywrights.org.
The deadline for writers in the United States 18 and under to submit a play to our 2012 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager