The authors featured at this year’s new play festival opening Friday night at the Yale School of Drama have one thing in common: All feature soldiers as key characters.
The Carlotta Festival is named for a woman who knew when it was the right time to release a new play.
Carlotta Monterey was the widow of the multi-Pulitzer-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. When Eugene died in 1953, it was Carlotta who made the controversial call to have his magnum opus A Long Day’s Journey Into Night produced earlier than the “25 years after my death” he had stipulated in his will. The rights to the play were transferred to Yale University, and one of the conditions of giving Yale those rights was that its School of Drama establish scholarships in O’Neill’s name.
That gift has been translated many ways, but for nearly a decade it’s been connected to a festival which presents full, well-funded productions of new works by the three graduating students in the Yale School of Drama playwriting program. The plays are directed and designed by other YSD students. Agents and producers and other theater industry types are invited, making the Carlotta Festival a major showcase for the school.
Over the years, Carlotta audiences have gotten a first look at works by writers now recognized nationally as major talents, including Tarrell Alvin McCraney and Amy Herzog.
This year’s Carlotta playwrights are all women in their 20s, but their backgrounds are vastly different. Hansol Jung, whose romantic drama Cardboard Piano opens Friday (May 9), is a Korean native who attended Penn State and had written only one play before applying the School of Drama. Mary Laws, whose abstract three-part war-themed work Bird Fire Fly has its first performance Saturday (May 10), studied Theater Performance in her undergrad days at Baylor College, but has since distinguished herself as a writer and dramaturg. Kate Tarker, who wrote the wild yet poetic comedy Thunderbodies (opening Sunday, May 11) started writing when she was at Reed College in Portland, where says she had “great freedom to explore” and where she confirmed her “absurdist sensibility.”
Cardboard Piano, Bird Fire Fly and Thunderbodies are very different plays—different genres, different styles, different tones, different lengths. (When asked what she wants audiences to know about Thunderbodies, Tarker responds “Tell ‘em it’s short.”) But they do have something in common: all have soldiers as key characters.
“That was a complete coincidence,” Laws says. “We brought [the scripts] in all in a row. We weren’t thinking about sharing elements.” Besides, she continues, “Kate’s is a comedy, mine deals more with metaphor and Hansol’s is a love story.” Bird Fire Fly develops from childhood war games into more involved grown-up interactions. Tarker, who grew in what she calls “a quasi-military family” (her mother was private contractor doing computer programming on military bases), says she was attracted to the theme of patriotism and likes “obsessive characters.” She adds that “knowing the mundane aspects” of military life “made me more aware of the comedy” and allowed her to shape Thunderbodies. Jung, who acknowledges that war “was in the world a lot” while all these plays were being written, was personally most inspired by the “subject of religion, how when it helps it helps and when it hurts it hurts.” Her script Cardboard Piano has the most reality-based setting of any of the Carlotta plays: “a township in Northern Uganda” as seen in 1999 and then over a decade later following the devastation wrought by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Carlotta shows are showcases, but they’re also an opportunity to take creative risks and try things on a grand scale, in collaboration with trusted classmates. All three playwrights have chosen to challenge themselves. Bird Fire Fly, for instance, has the same three actors throughout, but they are playing subtly different characters in each of the play’s three parts. Input and understanding from director Katherine McGerr and the actors was crucial. “We had many conversations about that: “You’re a different person now. We wanted to implicate more of the world rather than three people’s particular journeys.” Debating the numerous ways the show could be staged is “totally scary. It’s all a huge risk. But doing a show anywhere is a huge risk. So why not? It’s a thrill.”
Tarker likes to write “with a quickness of turns,” for “characters who think in the moment,” and faced similar challenges as an actor herself last year at the Yale Cabaret, starring in the remarkable, partially improvised comedy The Most Beautiful Thing in the World by Gabe Levey. “I took some acting classes here—clowning, physical comedy. Most of my work is comical—comedy built on pain.” But for all the looseness and free-spirited frivolity in her writing, Tarker says “I’m happy calling myself a formalist,” and has written Thunderbodies in verse form. “I like to work with heightened language. Heightened physicality, heightened language. Each play is an experiment.” She says that director Dustin Wills (whose own thesis project in the directing program was a full-scale rethinking of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in an orphanage during World War I) has given Thunderbodies “a balletic physicality, a flourish that really helps.” When asked if the show is “bright and fast and loud,” based on her various descriptions of the style and design, there’s a long pause before Tarker grins and answers “Yeah!”
Jung says that Cardboard Piano is a real departure for her. “The plays before it were very fluid in time and space. I wanted to write something with the three unities. I wasn’t forced to do it; it wasn’t an assignment. I couldn’t figure out how these [characters] would adjust to this world they lived in. I started going about it in my usual way, but realized ‘You need to keep them there. You need to contain this.’” When rewriting scenes for the actors, Jung says “I didn’t even talk about the text. I thought, ‘as characters, what would they feel?’” Though the play demonstrates a stylistic breakthrough for the playwright, the set that designer Jungah Han came up with is purposefully abstract. “The set was a surprise. It’s so poetic. It leaves a lot to the imagination. There’s a roof, and a hole in this roof. Just floating, above a metal square that indicates the walls. It’s like a boxing ring, an arena. I love it.”
At least a couple of the three Carlotta playwrights are moving right on from Yale to professional opportunities, though they can’t give details because contracts are still being signed and the situations have yet to be announced. They all hem and haw about the future but have no hesitation in talking about what they’ve experienced over the last three years and how those experienced will shape their chosen career path. They talk of finding collaborators they hope to work with for years to come. They talk of revelations they’ve had about the sort of writing they want to do. They talk of “being able to do this in a safe environment,” as Jung puts it. Mostly they talk of all the different aspects of theater and how they come together.
Mary Laws: “What’s exciting about working on a new play is that everyone in the room would have their fingerprints on a new play.”
Kate Tarker: “It’s exciting. It was a shock the first time I walked into a budget meeting for Carlotta—these concentric rings of people sitting all around, all there to make it happen.”
Hansol Jung: “It’s not just ‘Hansol wrote this play.’ I always felt a responsibility for it to be the best version possible, the best experience for everyone—and for me. I could have said ‘I’m done’ and just stopped. But instead, I did 11 drafts, and I’m glad. I’m glad people pushed me.”
Cardboard Piano, Bird Fire Fly and Thunderbodies get four performances each over the next week. With the matinee performances on selected days, it’s possible to see all three in the space of two days. For details, see the Yale School of Drama website.