Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Advice to Young Playwrights, part 3 - Summer Hortillosa

Our next installment of Advice toYoung Playwrights comes from Summer Hortillosa, a 2007 NJ Young Playwrights Festival winner for her play, The Not-So Lovely Tale of Strawberry Fructose. Summer is a journalist, playwright, and director whose recent work can be found on her website

What makes a strong play?

I think strong plays have a clear direction in multiple areas -- character development, plot and audience experience. Strong plays feature relatable, consistent characters with believable dialogue that make their needs clear and drive the story. A strong play is one that has many movable parts that are pieced together in a way that the beginning can't help but eventually result in the ending and the ending seems to have only been possible because of the beginning.

What types of characters do you like to portray/write?

I like to both portray and write fantastic characters with fantastic needs. I like unique characters who are almost entirely figments of imagination but who have strong emotional cores that make them completely relatable. I like strong characters, strange characters and characters capable of witty, fun dialogue. Argumentative and honest are some of the best things a character can be.

What do you look for when choosing a play to work on?

Generally logistics play a large role when selecting a play for production, but otherwise I try to select plays I feel I have written well or, when doing someone else's play, that they have written well. I like to choose plays that explore a fair range of emotions, that would be fun to produce and watch and that I feel are strong and have interesting characters.

Please describe the best experience that you had working on a play.

My most recent production, a one-woman show in the SO LOW Theater Festival in Jersey City called Kookspeak, was one of my favorite experiences so far because production was easy. I wrote, directed and performed the piece and used very few props or effects, so I did not have to worry too much about budgeting, aligning schedules or a lot of other stuff that happens when I have to produce/stage manage/do everything for my shows. In this case, I mainly focused on promoting my show and on rehearsals.

Directing one's self can be a challenge and requires a lot of self-awareness (or, if possible, a video or mirror as an outside eye), but was a lot of fun for me. I was able to make myself work whenever I wanted to, and while I had a general rehearsal schedule that I set up for myself and tried to stick to, I had a lot of freedom to rehearse more or less than planned depending on my needs. I was free to push myself as hard as possible and make all the executive decisions, which is always great.

Also, it made the final product very pure -- I will perhaps never have a work as fully representative of who I am as an artist. The words, thoughts and emotions were all mine, as were the staging, direction, acting choices -- it was liberating and fully satisfying, especially when I received a great response from my audience and peers.

Please describe the worst experience that you had working on a play.

The worst -- or rather, most difficult -- experience I had working on a play was a full production of Shakespeare's As You Like It involving about 32 high school students. Having to direct over 30 teenagers with various levels of commitment and talent as well as oversee the entire production -- with very little control over the groups in charge of lighting, sound, costumes and props -- was mindbogglingly tough.

I had to double-cast our leads, Rosalind and Orlando, which lightened the load for four generally equally talented actors who weren't very accustomed to memorizing lots of Shakespearean speech, but made it difficult to make the characters consistent throughout the play. Also, as a requirement for the class, we had to have every student -- even those who were terrible at acting -- play a role. Lastly, as any director can imagine, coordinating the schedules of over 30 people and having to deal with egos, lateness, forgetfulness, mistakes, irresponsibility, and all the other possible vices any group of 30 could have was a monumental task in itself.

Overall, however, we were able to pull it all together and put on several great performances. As any director will quickly discover, learning to roll with the punches and press on to put on a good show is possibly the most important skill they can have.

What advice would you give to a young playwright currently working on a new play?

Make sure every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect when you revise. Tying up loose ends, making sure that important facts are established (in a natural way and at the right time) and keeping characters consistent will strengthen your play. Read dialogue out loud and make sure everything sounds natural; cut what you can. Don't fall in love too much with your favorite characters or with your ability to write, because you might end up dragging out scenes and tiring your audience or worse, finding yourself disappointed when your work is produced and the performance doesn't live up to your expectations.

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