Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1993

“Your imagination is your own world,” playwright Josefina Lopez once said.   “You can do whatever you want with it. There are no rules.”   That’s the kind of liberating advice creative young minds need. At age 17, Lopez took that advice and penned her first play.   “Simply Maria, or The American Dream” won the statewide Plays by Young Writers contest in 1988.   It was subsequently produced on public television and won multiple awards.   Lopez’ “Real Women Have Curves” will be staged this year at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.   Last summer, she became a writer for Fox’s “My Girls,” starring Queen Latifah.

Lopez is the highest-profile success story of the eight year-old Playwrights Project, based in San Diego , but she’s not the only one. Jim Knable (of Sacramento ) is only 16 but this year, his third winning entry will be produced by the Project, which sponsors the California awards. (The plays will be staged at the Old Globe, November 10-21).

Other young playwrights have been repeat winners, and many have returned to the Project to teach.   With its in-school and outreach programs, the Project has taught 20,000 students and 3600 educators throughout the state.   Detailed script evaluations have been sent to 1100 young writers (every contest contender). Most of the 32 winners have stayed with writing or theatre.    It’s enough to make Executive Director Deborah Salzer beam.

“A lot of the writers see this as a creative home,” Salzer says proudly.   She keeps expanding her dream.   This will be her second year producing the winning plays in association with the Old Globe.   Last year, she established the “Dream Lab,” a writing group for underprivileged Los Angeles teenagers. She’s also branched out generationally, encouraging senior writers, and fostering “intergenerational partnerships,” pairing senior storytellers with young actor/writers eager for dramatic material.

This year, 148 young Californians came up with their own material.   Two of the four contest winners are from San Diego . Their lives are widely divergent; their plays, which concern parent-teen relations, are intriguingly contrapuntal.

Emily Gross, age 17, comes from what she calls a “Cleaver family.”   Her sister is her best friend, and she carries pictures of her two younger brothers. Emily began writing poetry in second grade.   In a playwriting class at Patrick Henry High School , she wrote two plays, which were produced at school.   Currently a freshman at San Francisco State , majoring in creative writing, she feels that her “super happy” parents have always been supportive.

Her winning play, “The Divorce Papers,” is a dark look at a disturbed mother-son relationship. “But everyone in my play is good, deep down,” says the shy, soft-spoken Emily.  

Daniel Pierce, age 18, also comes from a Catholic family. He has five sisters and three brothers. After a painful divorce, two sibs moved to Florida with their mother, and the rest stayed here with their father.   Dan was always a reader; he once ditched classes at Mount Carmel High School to finish a book.   When the Playwrights Project came to his school, he took their playwriting workshop, and wrote a father-son discussion play.   “It was a good release,” Dan admits, but he never showed it to his Dad, with whom he continues to argue, mostly about his funk/punk hairstyle and his friends.

Daniel found playwriting empowering. “It’s almost like being a god. You can make people say what you want. Someone else’s voice, but my words and feelings.”    The reticent, somewhat cynical freshman at Loyola Marymount in L.A. plans to major in sociology/criminology.

Dan’s winning play is a comedy called “Rules of Romance,” in which Heather, a ditsy teen, explains the vagaries of love. “I don’t have good luck with the opposite gender,” the playwright confesses. “But it was easier to parody the whole thing from a female point of view.”   I want the audience to be entertained,” Dan continues. “But there is an underlying theme, about teenagers and the way they think, and their relationships with their parents…. I have a bad outlook on parents in general — and people in general.”

The daunting task of staging these two disparate visions falls to 26 year-old, L.A-based director Karen Lordi, MFA/Dramaturgy graduate of the Yale School of Drama and former Joseph Hardy directing intern at the Old Globe.   “They’re like two halves of a theatrical whole,” says Lordi. “Dan’s play is a fun, theatrical way to present a serious issue. It’s very visual.   Emily’s piece is dark and character-driven. One will be a romp; I have to keep it moving. In the other, I explore this relationship. Both (playwrights) are writing from what they know, but not directly.   Both have deeper things to say, and they express themselves differently. It’s a great challenge.”

Lordi is assisted by acclaimed local playwright Naomi Iizuka, who serves as dramaturge. “Both plays,” Iizuka says, “have a very strong voice, which is unusual in any age group.” (In association with the Playwrights Project, Iizuka teaches playwriting to students and seniors).   “Dan has a tremendous sense of humor and Emily’s work has incredible honesty. My job is to listen to the playwright and make sure that what the writer intends is what goes onstage. That level of writer support comes from Debbie (Salzer) and permeates the whole Playwrights Project.”

“Plays by Young Writers ’93” will be presented by the Playwrights Project in association with the Old Globe Theatre, November 10-21 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage in Balboa Park .

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.