Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 2003

“We don’t have a ‘house style,'” says playwright Mat Smart of the UCSD Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting. “But we do have a house sense of humor.”

A finely tuned sense of irony seems to run through all the plays in the 4th annual New Play Festival at UCSD (April 15-26). “Humorless plays are pointless,” says third year playwriting student Jeff Hirsch. “We all seem to use comedy to make the dramatic situations more acute.”

The five New Plays of 2003 range widely in topic, from basketball and Bosnians to earthquakes, alienation, racism, love, violence and war. In one way or another, playwright Hirsch suggests, “they’re all about finding your way in the world.”

Not surprising, given that these are young playwrights. But they’re not as young as you’d think. Few come directly from college.

“They’re usually out in the profession struggling for somewhere between two and eight years,” says this year’s Head of Playwriting Adele Shank, who started UCSD’s playwriting program in 1984. She alternates in the job with Allan Havis; both are playwrights whose works have been produced locally and nationally. The directorship changes every two years, but both faculty are unfailingly available to the playwriting graduate students.

“These writers already have strong professional resumes, but they come because they know they need more work,” says Shank. “They want three years in a university program that nurtures and supports them [professionally, emotionally and financially]. It may be the only time in their whole lives when they can focus exclusively on their writing, rather than being stuck in a draining day job and trying to write at night. It’s a very special time.”

Every fall there are 30-40 applicants for 1-2 positions in the program. In any given year, there are five playwriting students total, and they participate in writing seminars as well as classes in text analysis, adaptation, screenwriting and TV writing. UCSD’s graduate Theatre program has been ranked number three in the nation, based on the annual survey by U.S. News and World Report. But the playwriting program is “Number One,” according to Shank.

“There are only about a dozen fully developed playwriting programs in the country. And none provides the production opportunities of this one. Each student has a play produced each year,” Shank explains. “In most programs they’re lucky if they get just one.”

Not only that, says co-director Havis, but “this program is unique in bringing in 10-12 theatre professionals from around the nation to see these fully mounted, full-length plays. The Festival is a fantastic showcase of the best young directors, actors, designers and writers — about to go professional.” This year’s guests include representatives from New York’s Public Theatre and Playwrights Horizons, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and The Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Jeff Hirsch’s contribution to the 2003 Festival, “Desperados in Dreamland,” is “a comedy with serious overtones,” Hirsch says, about a disaffected waitress and investment banker who start robbing convenience stores. On the run, they hide out in a traveling circus. But their criminality sparks a revolution.

The other senior playwright, Ken Weitzman, has written “Spin Moves,” which concerns a young basketball prodigy, a war-ravaged Bosnian Muslim girl whose panic attacks prevent her from playing. A mysterious high school coach helps her face her fears, but his strange tactics arouse suspicion, especially in the girl’s battle-scarred mother.

Second year grad student Rachel Axler’s play, “Archaeology,” is about roommates Aston and Pell, a Ph.D. dropout and a drifter living on an earthquake fault in San Diego. When the Big One hits only their house, a comic fantasy unfolds, concerning math, stripping and second chances.

The title of Mat Smart’s piece, “The Hand, Foot, Arm and Face,” comes from “Romeo and Juliet.” Here, too, we meet young, impulsive lovers — an Iraqi man and an American woman — who face persecution from their families and their communities. “Depending on the world situation when the play is performed,” said Smart two months before the production, “it could resonate in an entirely different way than I originally intended.”

The entry of the only first-year writing student, Barry Levey, is a one-act called “Critical Darling,” set in New Mexico, 1939.Two successful middle-aged British artists are contemplating marriage — until a vivacious young man arrives, making promises neither partner can ignore. The comedy explores the differences between public and private life, love and sex, in a time when world war loomed and gay life moved out of the closet.

As the ‘new kid’ in the program and the New Play Festival, Levey says he feels “like I fit right in with the others, as artists and friends. I think anyone who attends the Festival will see several common passions that unite us as a group: the tensions that still exist in our ‘diversifying’ society, the role of the misfit, and of course, some very dark and dry comedy.”

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.