Interview with Emma Kuli, winner of California Young Playwrights Contest 2018

Playwrights Project will produce its 34th annual festival of Plays by Young Writers at The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe on January 10 – 12 & 22 – 26, 2019. The festival will feature winning scripts from its California Young Playwrights Contest for ages 18 and under.

Contest winners were selected from 415 plays submitted by students from across the state. Three scripts will receive full professional productions, and two scripts will receive staged readings in this highly regarded festival of new voices.


A Mother’s Mother

By Emma Kuli

Age 18, Villa Park

Directed by George Yé

Emma wrote her play while attending Orange County School of the Arts. While at OSCA, Emma took part in the Creative Writing Conservatory and wrote for the 24 Hour ScareFest and the school’s annual PlayFest. She’s volunteered at Casa Teresa and was involved with the Villa Park chapter of the National Charity League.  Emma is now a freshman at Santa Clara University.

How did you first get involved with writing?

When I was in third grade, I finished a worksheet about the phases of the moon early and I flipped it over and wrote my first poem (about the moon, of course) on the back.  Later that week, I brought my poem on a trip to my Aunt Dorothy’s house in San Diego. She read it and she smiled so big and told me I was a poet.  She had the poem framed as a surprise for me.  It still hangs over my bed, reminding me that Aunt Dorothy and the moon are smiling down on me.

You mentioned that your play was inspired by volunteer work you completed with Casa Teresa, an organization that provides support to single mothers. Can you share how your real-life experiences inspired your play? 

Volunteering at Casa Teresa I was able to watch the love blossom between so many different moms and their babies.  The moms I was lucky enough to work with were connected by the challenges they’d pushed themselves to overcome with raw motherly love.

How did you come up with the idea for your script?

The beautiful baby in my arms smiled up at me, laughed a jingle bell baby laugh, and spit up all over me. I thought of my script when I was covered in spit up. I was, in this moment, reminded how tricky it is to care for a baby.  Laughing, I wiped the spit up off my face and chest and arms and I looked around. I saw strong women who’s lives were changed (for the better, but changed nonetheless) by tiny new members to their family.  I thought about all the changes you go through becoming a mother and I wanted to do something with that.

What themes are involved in your piece?

At its core, A Mother’s Mother is the moment when a daughter becomes a mother.  As her role in the world shifts, so do the politics of her relationship with her mother.

What is the message you hope the audience takes away with them?

I hope the audience is inspired by Billie’s story.  My main message is that the relationship between a mother and daughter is special.  My play shows how relationships are as messy and dynamic as we are. I hope the audience walks out of the theater thinking about the relationships in their lives on new terms.

Emma and her family at Lights Up!

Do you plan to continue writing?

I’m always scribbling ideas on napkins and wildly typing out my midnight burst of inspiration before bed.  If I’m in the shower or waiting for an Uber or folding laundry I’m probably thinking up a story. I don’t think I could stop writing if I tried.

What are your career goals and/or aspirations?

I hope to become a teacher.  I really enjoy working with kids. I would love knowing I was inspiring the next generation like my teachers inspired me, and I could write in my vacation time!

What advice would you give to a peer as they embark on writing their first play?

The best writing inspiration is right outside your door.  Listen to people talk. Listen to what they say. Listen to what they don’t say.

Are you currently working to develop any other plays?

Yes! I’m always running with ideas and seeing if they go anywhere.  I’ve been playing around with a few ideas recently!  (Picnics, Manipulation, Bread)

Emma with her dramaturg, Playwrights Project Founder Deborah Salzer (left), and Executive Director Cecelia Kouma.

One of the major areas of revision was to change the setting of your play. What did you discover about your characters by revealing them in a new setting?

In setting Willa and Billie in a nursery, I was able to see how the two would build a home for the new members of the family. Whereas the previous setting, a restaurant, forced the characters to confront the public realm. Setting the soon to be mom and grandmother in the place where the new babies will grow up forced them to face their future, their new definition of home.

The dynamic between Billie and Willa is authentic and engaging, do you have any tips for writing realistic dialogue?

In any revision I make to my plays, I always make large cuts to dialogue.  The majority of real conversation lies beneath what is actually said.

Please share with a few insights into your play’s development process — how do you approach edits? What have you learned so far?

I always read my play out loud when I’m making edits. When I hear the words read out loud, I can better picture how they might sound like something I would actually hear while walking down the street.

A Mother’s Mother can be seen during Program B of Plays by Young Writers, on Friday Jan. 25th at 7:30 PM and Saturday Jan. 26th at 2:00 PM.

For more information, please contact Playwrights Project at (858) 384-2970 or


*Photo courtesy of Geri Goodale of Reminisce Photography.


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