Young Playwrights

Left to right: Aisha Ziad, Lincoln Gaw and Jake Florell, the three winners of Pegasus Theatre Chicago's Young Playwrights Festival. 

Hyde Park students snagged two of the three top spots in Pegasus Theatre's 34th annual Young Playwrights Festival. Seventeen-year-old Aisha Ziad, a senior at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, won for “A Lady’s Facade,” while 18-year-old Jake Florell, who just graduated from Kenwood Academy, was recognized for “These Glass Lives.” The third winner was “Containment” by Lane Tech College Prep's Lincoln Gaw.

Chosen from among ten finalists, the winners each received a $500 prize. More importantly, their plays were produced professionally. This year, unlike any other, the productions are virtual rather than live because of the pandemic. They can be viewed in tandem Jan. 7-31.

The rules of the competition are simple, but the selection process is complicated. Any current Chicago high school student can submit plays. They must be one-acts between 10 and 50 pages, usually running 20 to 30 minutes in performance. There are three rounds of judging, each with different professional theater-artist volunteers, to narrow down the submissions to the ten finalists (and as many “honorable mentions”). Then excerpts of their plays are read at a theater community celebration, after which a final panel of judges picks the three winners.

“The festival is a year-round process,” said Ilesa Duncan, Pegasus' executive producing director, who has been overseeing YPF since 2006, “but this year has been different from any other in many ways because of COVID-19, and the effects will carry over into next year.”

Duncan estimated that close to 500 plays are submitted to YPF in a typical year, usually through English and drama programs run by teachers, though students can submit independently (there's a website link), and occasionally plays have come from middle schools. “In contrast, this year we only got about 280 submissions from eight schools due to shutdowns and other disruptions,” she said.

The workshops and residencies Pegasus offers in the schools also were curtailed. Originally, the theater presented basic workshops in 40 schools to explain what YPF was looking for, but more recently those one-time workshops have been by teacher request. They've also been supplemented by residencies, during which a professional playwright joins in teaching the class for ten weeks, preceded by a workshop and followed by a session of play readings with peer and instructor feedback. “Grants and donations fund most of these programs,” Duncan said, “though schools with more resources pay for some, and Pegasus offers them free for low-resource schools.”

She added that the pandemic cut short many residencies, preventing the students from completing and submitting their plays. In addition, those who didn't have the necessary technology at home couldn't submit.

Normally, the first round of judging involves 70 or 80 people reading the scripts and writing evaluations of them. For the second round, there are 10 or 12 readers who each read and score 15 to 25 plays of a total of 200 or so. The judges are down to three or four and the scripts to 40 or 50 for the third round. “Those who make it to the third round are invited to a summer workshop I introduced four years ago,” Duncan said. “They have a chance to revise and resubmit their plays. In 2019, about 40 students attended, though this year all the numbers were down for each phase and, of course, everything was online.”

Kenwood Academy and the U. of C. Laboratory Schools are among the high schools that regularly participate in YPF. At Kenwood, Jon Nemeth, an English and Drama teacher since 1993, has been involved for more than a decade, and the students in his Drama II course are required to submit plays to the festival as part of their class assignments. The residency this year was with playwright Kristiana Rae Colón, but the pandemic took a toll.

“We moved the residency and classes online, but that created a number of challenges,” Nemeth said. “Students couldn't brainstorm, share feedback or present their plays to the class the way they usually do, and I couldn't go around the room monitoring their progress (using Google Docs), making editing suggestions and letting them know when their plays were ready to submit.”

Nemeth said that only 70 to 80 percent of his students submit plays of suitable length, and some don't turn them in at all, making the loss of his mentoring ability this year all the more painful. On the other hand, he's had four winners over the years, as well as “dozens of finalists and honorable mentions.”

Florell, who lives near Kenwood Academy and plans to be a filmmaker, was a finalist last year. He won this time for “These Glass Lives,” a play about a teen who sneaks into a man's home seeking refuge from the police, leading the two men to discover the closeness and fragility of their connection.

“I tried to think of a hectic situation and worked backward from the ending, concentrating on making the dialogue sound human,” said Florell, who admitted he didn't think the play would go anywhere and even submitted a second one, a thriller. “It was most rewarding to learn why 'Lives' was selected and to sit in on the casting and rehearsals, even though they were via Zoom.”

For first-time competitor Ziad, whose entire Lab School English class was required to submit plays to YPF as part of the curriculum, the biggest challenge was maintaining the consistency of her play as she made changes. The best reward was finally getting it finished, because she has lots of unfinished writing projects. 

“I had lots of help from my English teacher and from the school's Writer's Center, a resource lab with two teachers who read the work to make sure everything flowed smoothly,” she said. “We also had plenty of class time to read to other students and edit together, and after the first round of judging, Pegasus invited me to an editing workshop, which was very useful.”

Ziad said the assignment started with several prompts, and she chose “history,” one of her favorite subjects. “A Lady's Facade” is about a fine arts historian and curator who is fired and tries to earn back her job when she uncovers a secret behind the “Mona Lisa'' that could change history. “I've always been fascinated by the woman behind the painting and her relationship to Leonardo da Vinci,” she explained. “The play interweaves the artist's time and our own, and they come together at the end. I'm a sucker for romance.”

The Lab School also had another finalist and two honorable mentions this year.

Once the winners were selected, Pegasus had to choose directors, cast the plays and figure out how to produce them remotely. “We usually start rehearsals in November, but this year we began a little earlier to deal with the problems,” said Duncan, who directed Florell's play. “We're normally having live tech rehearsals over the holidays, but this year we began reviewing and editing the footage earlier, fixing it and getting it ready for streaming.”

Duncan described the results as a hybrid of theater and film. “These aren't readings. The productions were fully rehearsed on Zoom, but everyone was self-recording on their computers, and Harrison Ornelas, a theater artist and tech director who studied film in college, put it all together,” she said. “We're doing our best to make lemonade given this lemon of a year.”

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