Horizon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival takes off

Credit: Horizon Theatre

Credit: Horizon Theatre

Held virtually this year, the festival showcases original work by up-and-coming playwrights.

It’s much harder to write short than long, so the old saw goes, true for fiction, non-fiction, and, ahem, newspaper stories.

It is also true for scriptwriting, which Yazmeen Mayes learned recently when she and 21 other young playwrights tried to boil down the most complex of life’s situations into five-minute plays. Five minutes, no more. That was the challenge laid down by the Horizon Theatre’s New South Young Playwrights Festival, earlier this month in an intensive week-long training workshop for some of the country’s most promising college-aged playwrights and storytellers. The workshop was to culminate in professional actors performing the short plays, with each show streamed online by Horizon.

Mayes already knew what she wanted to write: a story set in a laundromat where two strangers begin a conversation. Simple enough, right? Until she actually sat down to write. Round after round, she went, each draft either too long or too complicated. Then she thought about some of her favorite movies, the “Toy Story” series and “Inside Out.” She needed characters, yes, but they really didn’t need to be people.

“So, I decided to use a coin and a washing machine,” Mayes, 21, said. “The coin is named Nicky, and the washing machine is named Maytag.”

Nicky is mad that it’s stuck on the laundromat floor and not out seeing the world like other coins. Maytag continues to pine away for a particular shirt that it loved, “the one that got away,” said Mayes, a Kennesaw State music major. Her show is called “Cycles.”

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Her final script hit the five minute mark but it also was emblematic of the kind of creativity the festival has tried to cultivate in students for the past 23 years that it has been held. While the festival is usually in person and students and mentors fly in from around the country, this summer it was held virtually, over Zoom, a space many theaters turned to for live and streamed performances while pandemic restrictions were at their height. Despite the virtual nature of the workshops, neither the mission nor the intensity changed, said Lisa Adler, Horizon’s co-artistic producing director.

“We say we’re going to treat you like a professional playwright and you’re going to have to write for the audience,” Adler said.

But which audience? Theater audiences as well as the professional theater establishment has historically skewed overwhelmingly white in the United States. The business has been viewed as so exclusionary to people of color and women, that last year some of the nation’s top playwrights, directors, producers and actors of color drafted the manifesto “We See You White American Theatre.” It was a callout and prescription for change to make the industry from Broadway to local theater more equitable. In that way, Horizon’s class of young playwrights represented a diverse group of young creatives — race, gender, identity, ethnicity, experience — who say they plan to go on to write the kind of work they don’t seen enough of onstage.

Chayton Pabich Danyla, 21, graduated Yale University with a theatre and performance degree in May. Even with its renowned school of drama, the university didn’t produce enough shows or even scripts Danyla could identify with, he said. Very few centered LGBTQ or Latino characters in ways that weren’t stereotypical, he said.

“There are few plays that are bilingual and all of the plays I write are bilingual,” said Danyla of Hiram.

For the festival he wrote “Sycamore Roots,” a show that has gay characters, but explores what it’s like to realize you’ve moved on from the people and the mindsets of the place where you grew up.

Credit: Chayton Pabich Danyla

Credit: Chayton Pabich Danyla

But boiling that down to five minutes and four characters was not easy.

“I tend to write long and this was a lot of cutting and rearranging” Danyla said. “The script itself was three pages and three pages of dialogue. It was a challenge, but it was an exciting challenge.”

Adler said that while many of the students may go on to write for stage, it’s also likely many will migrate to writing for television/streaming screens. For the last several years, the festival has used mentors who have been writers or show runners on television shows such as “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Walking Dead” and “Halston.” The reality is television can provide a more sustaining lifestyle for writers, she said, but it’s the skill of a playwright that is often in demand in Hollywood and, increasingly, Y’allywood, as well as gaming.

“They have a craft, they can create dialogue and metaphor,” Adler said. “If a showrunner is a playwright, they’ll pull in more playwrights.”

Kalani Washington, 18, is still figuring out which direction she’ll take. The Oconee High School graduate was among the youngest festival participants and her inspiration came from television rather than stage. Her play, “Therapy with Books,” is based on the concept of bibliotherapy, which uses poetry or book narratives as a method of healing. But it has a bit of a thriller twist, an homage to her favorite series, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” She’d love to have her own thriller series one day, she said, and playwriting might lead her there.

“In playwriting, you come up with your own story and present that to the world,” Washington said. “You’re trying to answer questions and posing questions that society needs to face.”


Now streaming at horizontheatre.com.