Hometown: Baltimore, MD
The Young Playwrights Conference is just a few weeks away, and that brings us to our seventh interview in our series introducing you to each of the eight 2012 National Competition winners. This week, I spoke with Daniel Stern. Sibling rivalry doesn’t even begin to describe the polarized relationship between the two sisters in his play, Villanelle. When one sister dons the mantle of the suffering artist in order to compose a highly structured poem, the other challenges her methods and talents through unflappable efficiency.
So, I wanted to start by asking you about the title of your play. For those of us who might not know, what is a “villanelle”?
A villanelle is a really structured poem…My first familiarity with the form came in a creative writing class that I took in tenth grade: one of the assignments was to write a villanelle. I’ve written probably one ever, and it was in that creative writing class. It’s a six-stanza poem, and it has two refrain lines that are repeated at specific times throughout the poem so that the form is really, really tight, and it’s pre-determined.
Not only is there a character in your play who is working hard to create a villanelle, but does your play’s structure also have similarities to a villanelle?
Yeah, that’s one of the things I was trying to toy with. One of the premises of the play… I guess the nucleus, where I started, was that I wanted to write a play about somebody trying to work within the confines of a really structured art form, so either a villanelle or a sonnet or something like that…I was trying to write something creatively where the main character is struggling with working in that sort of tight, prescribed structure, where the play itself also has the form of that structure. So there are two characters in the play—one of them is struggling creatively to fit that tight mold, and the other one is not, and the other one is much more inclined to think within that tight, confined structure…
The two characters, they’re sisters, and I was wondering if there was any significance to their names: Irene and Katrina?
I hadn’t known this back when I was writing it but there’s this psychological principle called priming which basically means that if somebody is hearing something, they’re naturally and subconsciously drawing associations between the word that they’re hearing or the phrase that they’re hearing and everything they associate with it, or everything they might associate with it, so that they’re primed to think of people or interactions in certain ways if they’ve been exposed to certain words or certain interactions first. So I think that for me just naming [the sisters] after hurricanes primes an audience or primes a reader– or primes an actor, even – to see them as bigger personalities and someone they’re really interested in.
So, you’ve already said that part of the story of how this play came to be is that you were exposed to this type of poetry when you were in high school. But when did you get the idea to write this play – and how did it come to be?
I’m a freshman in college right now, and I think a lot of my writing experience came from going to a high school where the English curriculum was really wide open. In ninth grade we had required class, and after that it was a lot of electives, so I started taking a lot of writing classes… My senior year, I wrote this play as one assignment in a semester-long course in playwriting. It was a ten-minute play assignment, and I think that part of what I was interested in doing for that assignment, even before I knew what this play was going to be about, was just trying to find a way to combine forms, to maybe express one form within the framing of another one… I think poetry and playwriting are really linked. I think all types of narrative are really linked. I think history and fiction are really linked. I think that the closer that you can get to expressing the similarities between forms by choosing one, that brings you closer to saying something meaningful….I started this play in response to needing to write a ten-minute play for an assignment, but as with most assignments in that course the only real requirement was the length. So everything else was pretty wide open and we workshopped it. It was a collaborative process for every play where we constantly had people around to bounce ideas off of before we got into writing.
When you say workshopped it, what did that entail?
One thing that was great about that class, and I think is great about a conference like the [Young Playwrights Conference] is that so much of playwriting is how things sound, and one thing we did in that class was…is every play that we wrote, we split up into groups of probably ten people and all of the plays were read. We didn’t spend a lot of time evaluating them, we didn’t spend a lot of time with the drafts in hand. In fact, the only people who had the drafts in their hands were the actors of the play. So the playwright wasn’t allowed to have the draft in his hand or her hand, and the playwright wasn’t allowed to read a character in the play, so that part of it was just listening to the way that the words sounded and the way that the language was hitting the ear. And so for me that was a valuable experience just to hear what everything sounded like.
That’s great! You said earlier that the class was an elective, you could have taken other things. So how did you become interested in writing plays?
I love writing, I’ve always loved writing. I think in lower school it’s pretty common for a teacher to assign a required thirty minutes of reading outside coursework per night, and everybody is doing like thirty minutes of free reading whenever they want. But I had a fourth-grade teacher who assigned thirty minutes of writing. So he gave us writing notebooks and for thirty minutes, an hour, every night we’d just have to write, and the next morning we’d sit in a circle and we’d all share our writing. So I think that that made me a writer…or made me love writing. So in high school I took all these writing courses in different areas, and one thing that became really clear to me was that I was sort of writing for my ear. And this is true of me as a reader, too – I’m a really bad visual reader, I can’t read words with my eyes, I always have to say the words out loud in my head, and playwriting and I guess also spoken word poetry…are the real examples of things that you write that are written to be read aloud. And I thought…that element of playwriting catered to my strengths as a writer.
Do you have any favorite writers?
A lot of the writing that I like is prose that informs my playwriting, so I think my favorite writer is David Foster Wallace. … I’ve always loved, and this sort of goes back to sort of auditory writing, writers who can throw their voice, who can write in a first-person narrative that completely conceals the voice of the writer but is also the writing voice of the writer. One of my favorite books is called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [by Mark Haddon], which is written in the voice of a moderately autistic kid and I’ve always thought that was an incredible feat in writing. David Foster Wallace does it in a lot of…the fiction that he writes. There’s a story that I love by him called “Everything is Green” which is a really short story where he completely throws his voice. And then novels like Let the Great World Spin is written in a series of different voices. And I just think a lot of what I really enjoy reading, what I like reading, is a first-person, very distinct voice narrative. And I guess the fact that I like reading it means I like trying to write it too.
You mentioned you’re a freshman – do you have a major?
Not yet. Not yet.
What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking maybe history, maybe psychology or cognitive science. We’ll see. The thing is, whatever my major is, I’m going to take classes in that major and then just take a lot of other classes to explore other stuff. So my major is a part, but a small part, of my course plan.
So you’re planning on being in a four year plus plan, or you’re going to try to cram it all in?
Maybe a master’s program, maybe, things like that?
Right… Maybe – maybe law. Who knows.
So are you taking writing classes now as electives?
Yeah, I took a fiction writing class first semester. And second semester I’m probably going to take reading and writing the modern essay…so reading like some David Foster Wallace, some Anne Fadiman, some Joan Didion. And then trying to steal tricks.
And then be inspired and write your own essays! That’s great. Thanks for talking the time to talk with me, and see you soon!
Daniel Stern will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2013 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager