Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview with Festival Playwright Sharyn Rothstein

Sharyn Rothstein's play March, an exploration of the relationships between teens and their parents featuring avatars and other scary monsters, real, imagined, and something in between, will be part of our Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year. Sharyn is a New York City-based playwright whose full-length and one acts plays have been workshopped and/or produced off and off-off Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, New Georges, 3Graces Theater Company, The Vital Theatre, Soho Think Tank, and at numerous theaters around the country. Sharyn is the winner of the Samuel French Short Play Contest and recently completed her MFA in dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Dramaturg Sonia Fernandez spoke with Sharyn about March and her career.

Sonia Fernandez: One unique aspect of March is the computer game that two of the teenage characters play, which is represented onstage. They create avatars for themselves and play those avatars on stage. How did this device evolve for you?

Sharyn Rothstein: I had read an article that talked about these online games that allow people to take on any personality or character trait that they wanted. Yet, according to the article, the people playing the games usually choose traits very similar to who they are in real life. This was really striking to me, and I began to think about how people- and kids in particular- use these online games live out experiences and create relationships that are obviously heightened from real life, but are also very true to the person sitting at the keyboard. So I knew from the begging that although the avatars might look different from the characters who had created them, the avatars and the real life characters would sound very similar and have the same personality issues. It was also important that that in the online world, in stark contrast to their real lives, the kids could create their environment. I think that’s what draws the kids to the game in the first place.

SF: You’ve had some success in shorter forms of playwriting with several plays published in Smith & Kraus’ “The Best Ten Minute Plays” anthologies as well as Playscripts, and Samuel French. Can you talk a little about how your approach differs when writing a 10-minute play or a one act and full length works?

SR: The key difference for me is the incubation period. When I’m writing a ten minute or one-act play, I wait until I’ve got a good idea- it usually comes to me as a line of dialogue or a funny situation- and then I sit down and write the first draft immediately. With a full-length play, there’s a lot more I need to know – about the plot, about the characters – before I can write a complete draft. And because there’s so much more to know, it’s easier to get lost while I’m writing the play (which can be both a good thing and terribly frightening thing). What’s beautiful about writing a full-length play is that you have the room to let your characters surprise you. As long as my characters are doing things and saying things I didn’t expect them to do or say, I know the play is honest.

SF: You do other kinds of writing -- live event scripts, speeches, a children’s audio adventure series. How do you feel these influence your playwriting?

SR: The number one thing I’ve learned from writing for a living is that you have to be open to other people’s comments about your work. With playwriting, I’m in the fortunate place of owning the words, so no one can force me to take other people’s comments or edits. But what you learn doing other type of commercial writing – where you absolutely must take those edits- is that other people’s input is incredibly valuable. And you also learn how to best receive and incorporate that advice to make the final written product stronger. Often non-writers are responding incorrectly to a problem in your work- but that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

SF: Coming from small-town Connecticut, how did you get into playwriting?

SR: From a very young age, I loved being in an actual theater. Unfortunately, when you’re a kid in suburbia, most of the theater you have access to is musical theater, and I had – and still have – zero musical ability. Moreover, I was never really interested in being on stage. But I didn’t know, or I just hadn’t realized yet, that you could be a part of theater without being an actor.

I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who commandeered the school budget to allow a few of us to go see plays at the Hartford Stage from time to time. Those performances were some of us the first non-musical theatrical productions I saw, and I began to realize that somebody has to write all these shows. And that that somebody could be me.

SF: What’s up next for you?

I’ve been working on a new musical called BeautyQueen, that’s based on the story of Esther from the Hebrew Bible. The musical was commissioned by the 3 Graces Theater Company in New York, and they’re hoping to produce it in the Spring of 2010. It’s my first musical (as I noted above, musical talent was not my birthright!), so it’s been an equally fun and harrowing challenge.

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