Interview with Jordan Marie Finley, writer of “Feliz Cumpleaños” for Plays by Young Writers

Playwrights Project will produce its 35th annual festival of Plays by Young Writers at The Joan B. Kroc Theatre on January 29 – February 1, 2020. The festival will feature winning scripts from its California Young Playwrights Contest for ages 18 and under.

Contest winners were selected from 561 plays submitted by students from across the state. Three scripts will receive full professional productions, and one script will receive a staged reading in this highly regarded festival of new voices.

How did you first get involved with writing?

Writing was the first academic subject I was told I was good at in school. I was in second grade and had to write a folk tale story for our class magazine, and mine was 42 pages long and earned the coveted spot on the cover page. After I learned how to write, I never stopped.  I developed a bump on my right ring finger from writing so much that still has not gone away. I didn’t get involved with writing professionally until junior year of high school, and Feliz Cumpleaños was my first experience with playwriting.

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

In my acting class senior year, we had a homework assignment where everyone wrote down a random place and then we drew one out of a hat. Whatever location you selected was to be the inspiration for a three minute scene you were to write and share in class the next day. The one I drew was McDonald’s. I don’t know if it was an article I had seen online or something on the radio I heard or simply a call to action from inside me, but whatever it was that day birthed the end scene of the play between Santi and Cami. In the original scene, he brought home McDonald’s and a store bought birthday cake. I didn’t ever sit down and think, “I’m gonna write a scene about deportation,” that’s just what it ended up being when it was time to create. it was certainly something I saw as a story that needed to be told.

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

Don’t try to be anything in particular as a writer: simply be. Don’t think about who you’re writing for. Write for you, whatever you need to write in that moment, and worry about the rest later. I had no intention of writing a full length play, let alone winning Playwrights Project’s California Young Playwrights Contest at the start of Cami and Santi’s story. Take your time living, feeling and seeing others, and then your first play will write itself.

Jordan visits with her dramaturg Mabelle Reynoso and Playwrights Project Executive Director Cecelia Kouma after her performance in “The White Card” at UCSB

Are you currently working to develop any other plays?

I have had an idea in my head for a play about a school lockdown ever since I experienced a real one in the sixth grade. I’ve finally been working on an outline for that, as well as a romance about a long distance friendship fueled via FaceTime, and a comedic play about what happens when the different sections of Twitter attend group therapy.

Your play touches on the vastly different experiences students across San Diego County may have.

San Diego is one of the most divided places I have ever been to and I did not even realize it until I moved away for college. In all my class icebreakers, whenever someone said they were from San Diego, all the other people from there would all say, “where?” and a multitude of presumptions were made about you as a human being based solely on what part of the 619 or 858 area code you’re from. There is a huge socioeconomic divide between the neighborhoods of America’s Finest City, as well differences in culture.

You’ve had extensive involvement in extracurricular activities and groups throughout San Diego. Can you tell us more about the groups you’ve worked with and describe any moments that stand out in your memory? In what ways have these experiences informed your writing?

The experience that most informed my writing of this piece in particular was being fortunate enough to work with ImpACT On Stage for the past year. My perception of my value in the performing arts skyrocketed during my time working with them, while simultaneously fulfilling a deep commitment and need I have to help others. With ImpACT, we do performances at local schools about topics affecting students today such as bullying, knowing how to help a friend who is struggling, and identity. It was a really transformative year for me to see how my role in theatre can positively affect the roles of others in the world, and I was so blessed to be doing work in the community along such a talented and diverse group of actors. A lot of the themes in the scenes we performed found their way into this play in some form, as they became naturally infused into my own values. For example, the idea of being an upstander instead of a bystander is definitely present in Feliz Cumpleaños, as Cami decides she is her own upstander when she discovers her friend  is actually her bully.

Jordan and Mabelle meet to discuss “Feliz Cumpleaños”

This play originally began as a 3 minute scene you wrote in your high school theatre class. What about your characters and their stories called you expand the scene into a play?

Every class you are in and any street you walk down has a Camila and Santiago, and you do not even know it. I grew up by the border, live in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, attended predominantly white schools, and spent a lot of time hating things happening in our country, but always loving writing. I find it healing to my own experiences and as a way to understand others. Camila and Santiago are in the people I meet every day. They guided me to what needed to be said, needed to be done, and who I needed to become as a creator and a change-maker over the last few months.

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

No human is illegal, please vote, love everyone, and celebrate everything.

Do you plan to continue writing?

I’m a writing major, so I absolutely plan to continue!

What are your career goals and/or aspirations?

My dream is to work as an actor and screenwriter for television and film. I also would really like to get published soon. I have two poetry collections floating around right now I am trying to get picked up by a publisher.

Feliz Cumpleaños can be seen during Plays by Young Writers on February 1, 2020 at 7:30pm.

For more information, please contact Playwrights Project at (858) 384-2970 or at
Tickets can be purchased on Playwrights Project’s website.

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