Playwriting Competitions bring bold new voices to Chicago theaters

Red Theater's Red Hamlet
Red Theater’s “Red Hamlet” (David Darrow/Courtesy of Aaron Sawyer, Red Theater)

By Elizabeth Elving

The theater is a place to ask questions, and the writers in this year’s Young Playwrights Festival weren’t afraid to tackle some of the biggest ones head-on. The four winning entries of Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s annual high school competition just closed their run at Chicago Dramatists in River West under the title “Something Wicked Interferes.” While vastly different in subject, all four used the surreal and supernatural as tools to chip away at the veneer of everyday life.

In “A Matter of Life (& Maybe Death)” by Deja Jenkins, a coma-stricken teen plays cards with the grim reaper. In Daisianee Minenger’s “Dare to be Different,” a child-like narrator uses nursery rhymes to tell a story of gang politics in Detroit. Taylor Vazquez’s “Dirty Spoons” is a trenchant spoof of reality TV. And in Steve Maloy’s “A Day at the Office,” an advertising executive considers selling his soul to the devil (a sharp-dressed charmer who informs him that both Heaven and Hell are owned by Halliburton).

“I didn’t think anything I wrote could ever come out like that. It’s been crazy, I loved it,” said Jenkins, a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School, after a performance.

The plays were written as a class requirement, but entering the YPF was optional. Producing Artistic Director Ilesa Duncan said the competition helps focus the students and “orient them towards a goal.”

Stage at Chicago Dramatists Young Playwrights Festival
The set of “A Matter of Life (& Maybe Death)” at the Young Playwrights Festival at Chicago Dramatists. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

The YPF, now in its 28th year, is one of the country’s longest-running contests for young playwrights. Other Chicago theaters have since begun using competitions to encourage new talent, and it’s not just the winners who benefit from the results.

Pride Films & Plays was founded in 2010 with the goal of advancing LGBT performing arts in Chicago. The company holds several competitions throughout the year, including the Great Gay Play and Musical Contest, which accepts only anonymous submissions of previously unproduced work.

Winners of the Great Gay Play and Musical Contest get to work with professionals to put their words onstage. Artistic Associate Nelson Rodriguez said younger writers often need help with basics like play structure. But the topics they choose to address reveal what issues most concern the next generation of LGBT youth.

“We’re moving past the coming out story. We’re moving past the AIDS play. Now I’ve noticed a lot of scripts tackling marriage equality,” Rodriguez said. “I’m still looking for the first great gay divorce play. I’d love to read that, and I hope it’s a comedy.”

Rodriguez may soon get his wish. This year Pride Films & Plays launched Generation Next, a competition for high school, college, and graduate students. Winning entries will be staged, and Rodriguez said they are lucky to have an audience that will happily buy tickets to shows they know nothing about.

“I think the Chicago audience is more receptive of new work and experimental work. They’re more willing to open their mind and share their evening with something that’s out of their comfort zone,” he said.

That openness got the attention of Red Theater, which was founded in Nebraska and began a Chicago collective in 2012. The original members were kicked out of the University of Nebraska following an especially subversive performance. Founder Aaron Sawyer is not apologizing.

“We did immature things, as college students will do, provocative things. We were experimenting with the boundaries of what theater can do,” Sawyer said. “That youthful idealism is what the theater needs in order to be theatrical.”

Stage at Chicago Dramatists
The closing set of the Young Playwrights Festival at Chicago Dramatists with the playwrights’ photos projected on the back wall. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

Red Theater also hosts an annual playwriting competition. As with YPF and Generation Next, winners will get to see their play performed. While the Red Theater Playwriting Competition imposes no age restrictions, Sawyer said that as a new company they tend to attract younger writers.

“The young voice is the one that doesn’t calculate and is more pure. They’re following their instincts. The young voice is the most powerful voice for that reason,” he said.

Sawyer wasn’t speaking of the Young Playwrights Festival, but he could have been. Each one of the plays in “Something Wicked Interferes” packed a punch. They pushed past the familiar into the absurd and kept pushing until they found something redemptive. They did what theater is meant to do, while offering the rare chance to witness something truly original.

Today, the teenage attention span is dominated by the latest gadgets and apps. But the fundamentals of theater have hardly budged in the last thousand years. Competitions like the YPF motivate young artists to help keep that tradition alive.

“The big thing for them is that somebody’s listening,” Duncan said, “Because what they write is what they’re thinking. And they need to be heard.”

Photo at top: Red Theater’s “Red Hamlet” (David Darrow/Courtesy of Red Theater)