At Olde Club on Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13, a sign outside informed visitors to enter through the building’s back entrance. Rows of chairs were set up both on Olde Club’s floor and stage, creating tiered seating for a small audience. Delicate music played from the speakers above, and the audience quieted down while a handful of students took the floor. The 2019 Playwrights’ Festival had begun.
Playwrights’ Festival forms a unique facet of theatre at Swarthmore because of its friendliness towards actors, writers, and directors both experienced and inexperienced. The festival was entirely student-run, with only students writing, directing, producing, and performing. This third iteration of the festival took place in the form of nine ten-minute one-act plays, with topics ranging from divorce to political bias to pet robots. While the show began with two fairly eclectic pieces, “_____ of My Eye” (written by Rebecca Regan ’19 and directed by Thandiwe McMillan ’20), and “Corporal Solutions” (written by Gwen Gilfond ’22 and directed by Nadezda Malaya ’22), it ended with two plays about the sober topic of death and mourning.
These two plays, diametrically opposed in tone, were “Facepaint” (written by Collin Spangler ’20 and directed by Jack McManus ’21) and “Sincerest Condolences” (written by Alex Kingsley ’20 and Mikail Ahmed ’22). “Facepaint” explored a woman’s moving attempts to navigate her husband’s grief upon the death of his friend and her close friend’s recent divorce. On the other hand, “Sincerest Condolences” presented an outlandish funeral of a truly despicable man that kept the audience chortling with every twist.
The majority of plays contained humorous sentiments, but nevertheless, a list of content warnings accompanied the festival’s program. These warnings listed any content in the plays that may have negatively affected the audience, regardless of the material’s presentation in the plays. For example, “The Last Sardine Run” (written by Emma Pernudi-Moon ’19 and directed by Amaechi Abuah ’21) centered on two human divers who befriended two sardines in the ocean during a sardine migration. One of the sardines eventually succumbed to a fishnet, and despite the humorous nature of the death, the list of content warnings for the play included “death.” For other plays, however, the content warnings proved to be necessary.
The most controversial play in the show, “The Beast that may or may not exist” (written by Mikail Ahmed ’22 and directed by AV Lee-a-Yong ’21) used “the Beast” (Powell Sheagren ’22) as an on-the-nose allegory for political bias. Throughout the short play, the Beast perpetually taunted people (Alex Lehner ’22 and Lucas Dyke ’20) in various scenarios as they debated whether the Beast was real or not. These included a discussion of the Beast in a TV interview with a famous actor and a politician’s denying the existence of the Beast and its influence on his actions. Because of the political nature of the play, the list of content warnings included in the festival’s program extensively covered this play, including “offensive political rhetoric, offstage violence, mention of sexual harassment, [and] slurs.” While several objected to offensive jokes in the show before the festival began, which included a throwaway line about sexual assault allegations and another line comparing undocumented immigrants to space aliens, the jokes ultimately remained.
Oswaldo Morales ’21, who directed “RoboPet,” a two-person play about a girl (Samantha Ortiz-Clark ’22) whose mother gives her a robotic pet (Skylar Thoma ’21), discussed the collaborative nature of Playwrights’ and the challenges that the production entailed.
“One of the more challenging things for this show was trying to find time to meet with the cast. That’s part of the reason that rehearsals were not that long, because the actors both are very busy in other things that they are involved in on campus,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix.
He greatly appreciated the support that other students gave him as a first-time director.
“I had not directed a show before this, and had a lot of help from the producers to help me learn what exactly directing entailed … The [p]roducers, Ziv Stern and Clare Grundstein, were very accommodating and were able to help us with whatever we needed. We also had help from designers and other people who have experience in theater… Two student directors on campus, Collin Spangler and Jack McManus, even gave a directing workshop in the early stages of [Playwrights’] for those who wanted the extra help.”
Both Morales and Jake Chanenson ’21, director of “LoLA” (written by Kayla Sembly), a play about a smart device designed for singles, found that the most rewarding aspect of playwrights was being able to watch their actors perform and captivate audiences.
Chanenson wrote, “The most rewarding aspect of playwrights was to see my wonderful actors perform in the show. I couldn’t have been prouder of their work and was so glad that the audience enjoyed it.”
Morales echoed the sentiment.
“The most rewarding aspect of Playwright’s was seeing two wonderful actors who had not been in a show together, very seamlessly capture the audience with their performance,” he wrote.