Pitt playwrights compete in festival


Allen Howard

As part of the third annual Playwriting Festival, Pitt students showcased three original plays in the Cathedral of Learning Jan. 21. (Photo Courtesy of Allen Howard/HDIC Productions)

By Caroline Bourque and Shahum Ajmal | Pitt News Staff

Onstage, two actors sparred, bickered and gestured toward an imaginary hole in the floor as a willing audience played along — bringing to life a story from the mind of a fellow Pitt student.

At the third annual Playwriting Festival, hosted by the Pitt Performance Collaborative, three students had the chance to see their original written works read and staged in front of an audience of about 40 people. The event took place in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning Jan. 21 from 6-9 p.m.

The first staged reading of the night — “A Hole Halfway to China in our Suburban Backyard” — written by Pitt student and senior English writing and theater arts major Jessica Simpson, explored the troubles and anxieties of long-term marriage and how those involved learn to cope and grow in the face of a perceptibly stale relationship.

According to Nico Bernstein, chair of the PC and senior theatre arts and natural sciences major, the event organizers began advertising for this year’s festival in playwriting classes last semester and sent out emails to the English, history, writing and theater departments during a three-month span before the Dec. 28 deadline.

A panel of three judges from within the theatre arts department — grad student Courtney Colligan and faculty members Sara Thiel and Dennis Schebetta — anonymously read the submissions and narrowed their nine choices down to three finalists, providing notes and feedback for all who submitted their work.

“The PC exists as a club to fill in the gaps of opportunities we have here at Pitt,” Bernstein said. “There are very few opportunities to get out your playwriting experience or to have it judged in a more formal and competitive style, rather than just taking a class.”

Three different directors and 10 actors collaborated to produce the staged readings — recruited through Facebook and simple word-of-mouth throughout the theater department at Pitt, according to Bernstein. The PC allowed for one week of rehearsal for the performers, accepting slight edits and rewrites from each playwright before the night of the festival.

Bernstein oversaw the planning process of the festival with the help of PC vice president Rachel Lipton — booking the performance space and finding actors and directors.

“There’s no single part of theater that’s the most important,” he said. “Everybody has to do their job for the show to actually go on.”

The PC received funding from Outside the Classroom Curriculum to pay the playwrights for their work — the prize money for the three finalists was $200, $100 and $50 from first to third place, respectively. The first place winner — senior nonfiction writing and sociology major Jacob Punturi, for his play “Waiting Room” — was offered the additional prize of having their play performed in a full-scale production next semester.

Referring to the importance of providing this kind of opportunity for student playwrights at Pitt, Bernstein said playwrights should see how their written work translates to the stage.

“Theater starts on paper and moves into the physical, actual stage,” he said. “For a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve gotten to take that step.”

Peri Walker, a junior English literature and theater arts double major, wrote “Anna is a Poet” — which earned her second place at the festival — during her first playwriting class at Pitt, taken last semester.

“It was so exciting to see the piece stand on its own sort of outside my head,” she said.

“Anna is a Poet” follows the inner struggle of the title character, who grapples with the realization that communication and self-expression, especially in poetry, may never come through as purely to its recipient as the writer intends.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing about writing, and I wanted to see what would happen if there were significant interludes of poetry and poetic language put into a piece of theater,” Walker said. “Sort of in conversation with more naturalistic scenes.”

Walker said she hoped the audience understood that despite her acknowledgment of the fallibility of language, artists should continue to create and fight the urge to lean toward solipsism.

“It was really wonderful to be part of an event that sort of prioritized creativity and community the way that this one did,” she said.  

For first-place winner Punturi, the festival was not his first endeavor in playwriting, though it was the first time he had seen his work in a staged performance.

“Seeing actors bringing life to characters I had written, it felt kind of magical,” he said.

Punturi’s play, titled “Waiting Room,” portrays the interactions between two siblings as they sit in a hospital waiting room, anxious to see their ailing grandmother. Uncertainty weighs heavily on the situation as well as within each character, though endearing jibes and a steady alliance keeps the characters afloat among the cynical characters who come across them.

Punturi found inspiration for his work after spending an extended amount of time in a waiting room for his own grandmother at the start of the last fall semester. He dedicated “Waiting Room” to her at the festival — she was in attendance — with a brief “for Nora” during the play’s introduction, a nod to her nickname.

“My grandma asked me afterwards if that’s what I meant,” he said. “I was like yeah, of course, it was 100 percent for you.”

Puntari said his main playwriting influences include Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, referencing the profundity of simple language and relationships that are equal parts familiar and emotionally moving — elements that come across clearly in his own work.

“There’s so much going on all the time in these weird situations,” he said. “I hope [the audience] took away that there’s some kind of humor and ways to be positive and make it through what seems to be an impossible situation.”

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