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Interview with Erika Beth Phillips, director of the Staged Readings of Plays by Young Writers 2017

January 20, 2017

Playwrights Project will produce its 32nd annual festival of Plays by Young Writers, sponsored by the Sheila and Jeffrey Lipinsky Family Fund, at The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe on January 19 – January 29, 2017. The festival will feature winning scripts from its California Young Playwrights Contest for ages 18 and under.

Contest winners were selected from 365 plays submitted by students from across the state. Four scripts will receive full professional productions, and two scripts will receive staged readings in this highly regarded festival of new voices.

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From left to right: Playwrights Project Executive Director Cecelia Kouma, Turtle on a Rock writer Abby McDonald, Education Programs Manager and Staged Reading Director Erika Beth Phillips, and Plays by Young Writers Artistic Director Ruff Yeager.

Erika Beth Phillips is an actress, director, and playwright from New York City.  Erika serves as the Education Programs Manager for Playwrights Project, coordinating residency programs in K-12 schools.  As a Teaching Artist, she works with students throughout San Diego for Playwrights Project, La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe. This year, Erika is directing both staged readings for Plays by Young Writers. In this interview, we speak primarily about her experiences behind the scenes of Turtle on a Rock in Program A. 

You have been involved with other productions of Plays by Young Writers in the past, can you tell us about how you first became involved and the different roles you have served over the years?

When Cecelia Kouma asked me to direct the staged readings for Plays by Young Writers 2013, I had already been involved with Playwrights Project for several years as a Teaching Artist in school programs and a playwright with the Telling Stories program (dramatizing stories told by former foster youth).  I loved the process and had great fun with the pieces, which were Help! There’s a Stranger Living Upstairs by Gilare Zada and The Trial of Wolf vs. Pig, by Mathew Maceda, whose play, The Dumping Ground, is being fully produced this year.  That year, I was also the dramaturg for the pieces, so I had a lot of contact with the writers.  Two years later, I happily directed the readings again, which were Best Friend Mistakes and One Magical Day, and I’ve also directed several staged readings for community performances as well.  There are several different ways to approach a staged reading.  My goal is to get to the heart of the play, have a sense of “place” and add just enough staging so that the audience can forget the actors have scripts in their hands and get involved with the story. 

Do you work in theatre outside of this festival and if so, how does your work in Plays by Young Writers differ from your other work? 

Yes, most of my work is either as a professional actor – usually working with other seasoned actors and directors – or as a teacher/director working with students who are very inexperienced with theatre and introducing it to them.  What I find with Plays by Young Writers is I often get to work with actors with various backgrounds – some with solid experience, and some in college or just at the start of their careers.  There’s not much time for rehearsal, so the actors need to work really fast and trust their instincts.  Any redirection needs to be very clear.  There’s not much time to massage things into place!

What are some of the highlights of working with young writers? 

What I love about working with the younger winners is that often they find themselves in the position of having won before they’ve even really considered themselves a writer.  They’ve often written the play as a school project and submitted it to the contest because a teacher suggested it.  When you see a love for writing AND a growing self-esteem from working with professionals bloom simultaneously, it’s really something special. 

An interesting aspect of Turtle on A Rock is the songs written by the playwright. Can you speak a little on that?

Abby had the melodies of all the songs in her head, and she and her mom sung them into a recorder for me.  I shared the recording with the cast, and for the most part, they’ve stayed intact.  I just added a little back-up humming at the end to get a sense of coming together.  They are quirky melodies that make the story of the play all the more endearing.

Can you share with us any details about your vision for one of the plays you are directing this year?  

Turtle On a Rock is a sweet play with strong characters.  The playwright clearly articulated that she wrote this piece as a contrast to the solemn and highly dramatic pieces being written around her in class.  So, it’s important to keep it upbeat and bright.  While the central character is a turtle, his problem isn’t particularly “turtle-y”.  It’s not like he’s slow or has a shell problem!  He wants to know where he fits in this world, in his community, why he was put on this earth.  So, it was important to me that while we have fun with the different animal characters, that we play them as humans, we costume them as humans, and flavor the characterizations and costuming with the nature of those animals rather than be run by them.  No tails! 

What caught your attention most when you first read the script?

Turtle on a Rock is a deceptively sweet and simple piece.  It’s actually quite deep in how it taps into a universal longing to know oneself and be a part of a loving community.

Turtle on a Rock can be seen during Program A of Plays by Young Writers, on Saturday Jan. 28th at 7:30 PM and Sunday Jan. 29th at 2:00 PM. You may purchase tickets for Jan. 28 at 7:30 PM here, and Jan. 29 at 2:00 PM here.

For more information, please contact Playwrights Project at (858) 384-2970 or write@playwrightsproject.org. Visit http://www.playwrightsproject.org/productions/pbyw/. 

*Photo courtesy of Geri Goodale of Reminisce Photography.

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