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Student Scribes On Playwriting

Of the 19 plays being produced through the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club this semester, eight are the work of playwrights who are also current Harvard students—many more, campus playwrights say, than there were a few years ago. The Crimson sat down to discuss the challenges and opportunities of student-written theater with four campus playwrights whose productions premiered recently: Crimson Arts editor Nathan O. Hilgartner ’14, whose “Wordplays” ran this past weekend; Andy J. Boyd ’14; Crimson Arts executive Hayley C. Cuccinello ’14; and Cassandra L. Rasmussen ’13. Their plays “Stingers,” “Jenna’s Birthday,” and “Star Ash” were all staged earlier this month.

The Harvard Crimson: You are all younger than most playwrights out there—do you think it’s challenging to write a play and write different characters realistically since you have less life experience?

Andy J. Boyd: I feel like you can trick people into believing you have more life experience than you do if you read books—it’s not that hard.

Cassandra L. Rasmussen: In certain ways, being young could be seen as a disadvantage because we haven’t had as many life experiences, but at the same time I feel we’re open to hearing other people’s stories. You can’t really experience everything; you have to listen. And it’s also a situation, too, where you’re having an actor portray [a] role, so they’re adding their experience to your experience, and the two of you can come up with something.

THC: Has your time at Harvard affected your writing or your writing aspirations?

CLR: Every year I would write one-acts for the playwriting festivals in my high school, so I hoped that when I came to college I’d be able to continue that, but I was a little overwhelmed by all the talented people around me. So my self-confidence kind of dropped freshman year, and I was forced to really revisit my playwriting and think about it differently.

Hayley C. Cuccinello: I think I finished my first play when I was 16; however, like Cassie I sort of had to take a break when I got to Harvard…. Around my sophomore year, I was like, “I really need to get back to what I love,” and part of that was inspired by my friend Andy Boyd, and seeing him produce show after show after show, and seeing how much he learned from it. I realized I needed to stop writing plays in the closet. I needed to actually have people perform them.

THC: What is the biggest obstacle to be overcome in a completely student-created production?

HCC: I’ve heard from some actors in the community that, if they’re choosing between a student-written show and something that’s more recognizable, the default choice will often be to pick the more recognizable show. And that’s understandable… It’s also sort of a shame, because you [as a director] could put on the world premiere [of a student-written show].

AJB: If I were a director, I would think that’s so cool.

Nathan O. Hilgartner: But it depends on what play.

AJB: I think people are scared, scared of putting on something that might not be good, and they don’t realize that there have been bad productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “The Zoo Story” or any great play you can name.

NOH: But there’s one less factor to worry about with something like that, whereas with a new play, that’s almost everything. [You have] all the other normal stuff that is so difficult logistically in putting on a play [where] you don’t have to worry about the script, but suddenly there’s the question of “Do these words even work?”

CLR: But what makes it terrifying is also what makes it so exciting. Every actor really gets to mold this character for the first time. To some extent, for an audience seeing a newly written play, it’s difficult to distinguish how the production is different from the script itself, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

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