Play(wright) in Progress

By Hayley Tyler Chin

Originally Published in Imagine

Last summer, I received a call from Elizabeth Bosjza, the literary manager at Young Playwrights Inc. (YPI). It had been months since I submitted my play Jenna’s Birthday to YPI’s National Playwriting Competition, so the call was a surprise. Elizabeth had good news: As one of eight winners, I was invited to travel to New York City, where I would stay in a hotel for a writing conference with the other winners, attend master classes with professional playwrights, and perhaps most exciting, have a staged reading of my play with a professional director, dramaturg, and cast—all free of charge.

Although I was excited for the conference and the reading festival, I was also nervous. I hadn’t written a single play my entire freshman year of college. It was frighteningly easy to think of myself as no longer a playwright.

Back Story

I first started writing plays in tenth grade. I was taking a playwriting class at the time, and one ten-minute play exercise led to a 27-page play full of exposed secrets and exclamation points. At the encouragement of a teacher at my high school, I submitted it to YPI’s Write a Play! NYC Competition, a contest for New York students in elementary, middle, and high school.

Fortunately, YPI saw potential in my angst-filled creation. I won, along with two other New York high school playwrights, and was invited to apply for the Advanced Playwriting Workshop (APW), a free weekly class held at the YPI office for about a dozen high school playwrights.

APW focused on the basics of good playwriting and culminated in a new play—in my case, Jenna’s Birthday—and a staged reading of excerpts for the entire class. There were no guidelines for this play; it could be long or short, realistic or theatrical. Through writing exercises, table reads, and discussions of our work with our teachers, we learned how to close the gap between what we envisioned and what was on the page. Solid plot structures, stylistically sound dialogue, and compelling characters were reinforced; what we would produce from these elements was up to us.

APW is taught by working playwrights in the NYC area, which has the added benefit of showing the students how playwrights make their way in this field. Thanks to YPI, I have working relationships and friendships with other playwrights, both student and professional. So when I won the national playwriting contest, I had people with whom I could not only share the news but also seriously discuss my concerns about the prize.

About a week before the conference, I got coffee with my former playwriting teacher, Lucas Hnath, who is currently a resident playwright at New Dramatists in New York City. Lucas remembered Jenna’s Birthday from my first year in the workshop … three years ago. He warned me that getting the old play up to speed with my current writing style and skill would be, in what would turn out to be a huge understatement, pretty hard.

Rediscovery

The first day of the conference, YPI staff met the other playwrights and me at the hotel where we would stay for the weeklong conference. We were all handed folders containing a schedule of plays we would see and master classes we would attend, and a rehearsal schedule. I read my own slot with a sense of surprise:

JENNA’S BIRTHDAY
By Hayley Tyler Chin

It had been a long time since I had used my pen name. No one at college knew me by it; I’m listed under my legal name on the masthead of the college newspaper. Seeing my nom de plume again reminded me that I was returning not only to an old play at this conference, but to my identity as a playwright.

For most of the first day, we heard cold readings—actors reading the scripts without any preparation—of every play. It was nearly 12 hours of readings. Luckily, the plays were fantastic. Benjamin Sprung-Keyser’s What All School Children Learn was so thought provoking that his cast erupted in debate at the end of the play. Annika Bennett’s existential dramedy, A Conversation Piece, had us alternating between fits of laughter and silent contemplation.

Though the other playwrights and both my director, Bret Reynolds, and my dramaturg, Ken Cerniglia, liked my play, I came out of the cold reading less than happy. The play, a comedy, elicited laughs, but most of them were awkward. A large portion of the plot hinges on the revelation of secrets, but I could tell that they were causing confusion, not suspense. Knowing that my play would be read in front of an audience in less than a week, I felt ill.

Bret and Ken encouraged me to make the sizable changes I felt I needed to make, assuring me that the point of the festival wasn’t a finished product with every scene finessed. I set off to revise.

Transformation

I didn’t rewrite the entire play, but I assessed every line and decided whether to cut, rewrite, move, or leave it. I wrote for about 15 hours straight. I wouldn’t have undertaken—or been able to endure—this intense process if it weren’t for the two years I spent in the Advanced Playwriting Workshop.

When I met my cast for the first rehearsal and heard the practically new script, it felt like magic. My cast felt perfect. Nick Fondulis gave my nice-guy loser love interest enough depth to make his sadness more than a punchline. Natalie Carla Allen brought her knowledge of the setting of the play—a tiny town in Wisconsin—not only in a slight Midwest accent but in a subtle edge to the character of Lucy. Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone handled the multiple personalities of his character deftly, making Bill more cohesive than I had ever envisioned. And Lori McNally made the pain of the protagonist, the titular Jenna, real. These skilled actors revealed my play’s potential and helped me see where there was room for improvement. In particular, I used my actors as a barometer for my jokes. If, despite the actors’ impeccable comedic timing, a joke wasn’t landing, I knew I had to reexamine the script.

The night of the staged reading at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the laughs were no longer awkward, and there was no bored shifting in seats. The characters’ intentions were clear. The audience cared. The play worked, and for the first time, I considered doing this professionally.

Ending, Beginning

That night, when YPI took us out for a celebration, I realized how much this competition and conference is rooted in traditions. The pre-reading good luck wishes from one playwright to another, Bret’s entertaining old stories, and even the late night antics among the playwrights were all things that had happened in years past and will continue to happen, even when our group are no longer considered “young” playwrights.

Throughout high school, as long as I worked hard and wrote well, YPI was there for me—as it has been for so many other playwrights over the years. If you have strength in your ideas, if you know what you want to create or can at least experiment with confidence, YPI offers a simple, concrete joy: a piece of work that you can be proud of. For many of us, that is just the beginning.

Hayley Tyler Chin is a sophomore English concentrator and newspaper editor at Harvard College. She hails from New York City and has been involved with Young Playwrights Inc. for four years. She has started writing plays again.

Click here to download a PDF version of Play(wright) in Progress