Frost and Dodd student play festival to show new works

by Annie Smith and Laura Weiss | 7/24/14 7:08pm

In the small pitch-black theater, students glide through the audience and across the stage, settling in rocking chairs for one scene or bursting through the bare screen door in another. They have been fixing the details, swapping out scarves and timing effects. In front of a lit screen that shifts between pinks, blues and reds, they utter words written by Bobby Esnard ’14, perfecting the performance of a script he first wrote more than a year ago. As they rehearsed on Thursday, their first big audience would witness the production in just two days.

The Hopkins Center stage will come alive this weekend with the works of two playwrights, Esnard and Michael McDavid ’15, whose plays will debut in the annual Eleanor Frost and Ruth and Loring Dodd play festival.

Each spring, undergraduate playwrights can submit original, unproduced one-act plays to the Eleanor Frost and Ruth and Loring Dodd playwriting contest. The creative possibilities are endless- — except, of course, the one-hour time limit on the submitted work. Just three plays are selected for the festival, with one Dodd award and two Frost awards offered.

Esnard’s play “Inheritance” was selected as the winner of the Dodd award, while McDavid’s two plays, “Locust Walk” and “Place Your Bets,” were selected for the Frost award. Only “Locust Walk” will be read so that McDavid can focus on the production.

Dodd recipients will see a full production funded by the award, while the Frost designation supports staged reading.

Celebrating student playwrights’ new works, theater director and professor Jamie Horton said, is one of the best things the departments does. As part of Horton’s drama and performance class this summer, students act, stage-manage, design, choreograph and act in various roles in the Frost and Dodd productions.

As part of Horton’s class, Sam Van Wetter ’16 got involved with the production of “Inheritance,” taking on the role of sound designer. Van Wetter has compiled Cuban music and determined when in the show it would be appropriate and interesting to include music, he said.

The festival is an opportunity that the theater department seems to wholeheartedly support, he said.


Creating a story

Esnard’s work began as a final assignment for theater professor Joe Sutton’s advanced playwriting class more than a year ago. Assigned to find a play written in a unique style that tells a story of his own, Esnard chose “blu” by Virginia Grise, which uses plural, simultaneous dialogues to tell stories from different time periods.

Esnard said he hopes the work will invite the audience to question their values.

Esnard, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, said successive generations have questioned the narrative of Cuban-American immigration during and after the Cuban revolution.

“I wanted to use the nonlinear storytelling style to show how those histories and memories are both challenged and reproduced by successive generations of Cuban-Americans,” he said.

In the process of writing and producing the play, he said he used cultural elements that were accessible because of his family. Having studied various elements of Cuban and Cuban-American history and culture, including the immigrant experience, Esnard already had a grasp of the plot’s background knowledge.

Esnard works when his ideas form, rather than writing without knowing where the story will go. He said he employs the same technique when writing poetry, as he did for Soul Scribes at the College.

“For me it sort of came in spurts in the sense that I would thoroughly develop the plot in my head before even attempting to find the words for the scenes,” he said.

One of his biggest challenges while writing was self-created, Esnard said. He chose to emulate Grise’s “blu,” so he had to use a non-naturalistic storytelling method while writing a realist dialogue.

Esnard noted that he is thrilled Dartmouth is producing Latino theater. He hopes to see the College continue to produce Latino theater beyond just student works, he said.

“It has been extremely rewarding not only to see my play come to life but also to learn about and contribute to all of the dramatic elements that make a live production so exciting,” he said.

Esnard has taught some of the actors Spanish and coached them on a particular dialect.

After winning a Frost award last year for his play “Our Fathers” and acting in one of the other productions, McDavid submitted two works to this year’s contest. “Locust Walk” was chosen to be read, he said, because it was better developed.

Set in Philadelphia City Hall, the show is a political drama. McDavid wrote “Locust Walk” over three months when he was off campus last fall, and has also spent about a month rewriting his script.

“I didn’t have any particular inspiration, but I knew I wanted to write something explicitly set in Philadelphia,” he wrote in an email. “In a lot of ways the play is about careers and professional success, which has definitely been on my mind as I entered the second half of my time at Dartmouth.”

Because his production is a staged reading, McDavid will be able to continue rewriting up until show time.

“It’s never been performed before, and I really don’t know what to expect,” he wrote. “The most fruitful thing for me as a playwright has been listening to the extremely talented actors reading my work aloud, because in the end you don’t know what you’ve written until you hear it performed. So the reading, where everything is turned up a notch because of the audience, will be when I really find out how my writing holds up.”

Horton, who is directing “Inheritance,” said some playwrights in the festival have gone on to become professional writers, while others have not continued to pursue their works.

“Seeing one’s work come alive with a group of actors is a very special experience for the writer,” he said. “So going forward, what we hope they take with them is the sense of having written a piece, having seen that piece brought to life and whatever they do with that play — whether or not they go on to become playwrights — that that process of collaboration is not something that they will go on to forget.”

When the two playwrights see their plays on stage in front of an audience, Horton expects that they will want to develop their pieces further. He would be surprised, he said, if McDavid and Esnard did not rewrite their works in some capacity based on what they see.

For his part, Esnard said he has had many thoughts on how he might expand the script to a full-length play. He might experiment with those ideas before deciding if he is done working with the “Inheritance” script.

“My understanding of the world of the play is much richer because of this experience,” he said.


Putting on a show

Bringing the scripts to a product has proved a creative effort in itself.

Horton called directing “Inheritance” a “really exceptional” process. Esnard’s play features a significant dance component, which has been a particular element in producing his work, Horton said.Lillian King ’07, who will direct “Locust Walk,” said she was asked by Horton to become involved in this year’s festival, having participated when she was a student. A recent graduate from Boston University’s School of Theatre, King will bring experience working on Broadway to her direction.

Working on a new play is especially exciting, she said, because the director and actors can work with the writer, instead of only having words in front of them. McDavid has written four different drafts of “Locust Walk” during about three weeks spent staging the reading.

“He’s been working really hard and clarifying,” King said. “It’s not a mystery, it’s a political drama, so there’s a lot of nuance and secrets and scandals.”

King said she has focused on acting and character work while developing “Locust Walk.”

The Frost award remains primarily an opportunity to workshop a writer’s script, so the audiences can expect seven actors at music stands, with “nothing fancy about it,” King said.

Horton said the work becomes an “intrinsically shared experience” between audience and creators. For a new work, he said, this is a “critical” part of the journey.

At 8 p.m. on July 25, performers will read “Locust Walk” at Warner Bentley Theater, with a discussion to follow. The curtain will rise on Esnard’s “Inheritance” in the theater at 8 p.m. July 26, also followed by discussion, and the festival will conclude with a staged reading of “Locust Walk” and a production of “Inheritance” starting at 7 p.m. July 27.