Play receives staged reading for Playwrights project

Throughout the night of Sept. 30 at The Old Globe’s Hattox Hall, six young women–including Sofia Miller (9)–patiently awaited their turn for the spotlight. Scattered throughout the audience, they anticipated their turn to receive recognition for months of brainstorming, writing, erasing and rewriting, which culminated in completion of their winning scripts for the California Young Playwrights Contest.

“It was really cool because they didn’t just call your name out, but when I got to go up on stage, there were also some actors that went up on stage and would read a portion of the script,” Miller said. “It was the first time I’d ever heard the script read out loud, and that was the first moment for me that I realized, ‘wow, I actually did this.’”

Miller originally penned her play “A Life and Death Situation” as part of a school assignment last year in which everyone in her class submitted a play to the California Young Playwrights Contest. In September, Miller received word that her play stood among winning scripts out of 432 submitted and would receive a series of staged readings at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe, Jan. 18-27.

“I found out right after school one day when my friend and I were listening to the voicemail I got from Rachael VanWormer, the contest coordinator, and I just freaked out,” Miller said. “I was honestly trying my hardest not to scream because I was still on the school campus, but I was overflowing with excitement. I couldn’t believe I won and I still have trouble believing it.”

According to Miller, a staged reading is nearly identical to the traditional play format in terms of the quality of  acting, but rather the two forms differ in that the actors are permitted to hold their scripts rather than memorize them, and there’s less lighting, fewer props and minimal costumes.

Ultimately, Miller’s play centers around the dynamic between life and death as personified characters–Vivia (life) and Thane (death)–and a little human girl, Leora.

“It’s basically about the differences between two very different people and how sometimes it takes somebody else to help them see past those differences,” Miller said. “I’ve always really loved stories that subvert the normal and personify a lot of ideas, like life and death, and I really wanted to see how they would interact if they were actual people.”

According to Miller, the main conflict manifests itself in an argument between Vivia and Thane during a game of hide-and-go-seek between Vivia and Leora.

“Thane stumbles upon Leora hiding before Vivia finds her, and while Leora just wants to play with both Vivia and Thane, Vivia despises Thane and the conflict begins with their argument,” Miller said. “While Vivia wants to keep Leora and her creations of Life safe and Thane struggles with his identity as a killer, Leora is choosing between Life or Death, like the play’s title, though she doesn’t realize it.”

With approximately a month and a half of preparation prior to the final staged readings, the Playwrights Project paired each of the six contest winners with a dramaturg, or writing mentor, to help guide them through revisions of their script. Under the guidance of her dramaturg Thelma DeCastro, playwright and the Playwrights Project’s Community Program Coordinator, Miller completed two revisions of her play during this period. Together, Miller and DeCastro brainstormed ideas for revisions to further emphasize the major themes and overall message of the play.

“[DeCastro] asked me lots of questions about the world I created and what I really wanted to show the audience and the message I wanted to give them when they left my play,” Miller said. “I want the audience to really see that there are a lot of differences between us humans that are very physical such as race, gender, and sexual orientation and I want people to see that these differences are okay, but we need to see past them and also try to understand each other on a basic level at least.”

In addition to highlighting the overarching themes of her play, the revisions to Miller’s play also served a second purpose–to shorten the script from its initial 20-minute duration to meet the official time constraints of 8-9 minutes to fit all the staged readings and full productions of each program, respectively, into a single program.

In further preparation for the final staged readings, Miller and DeCastro attended regular rehearsals with the cast held at a local YMCA.

“We would all get to talking about the play and how we wanted to show the audience my message not just through the writing but through the acting as well,” Miller said.

Although her play manifested from a school assignment, this introduction to playwriting, according to Miller, ultimately helped her unearth her desire to pursue a career in writing, namely writing novels, as well as rediscover her passion for writing in general.

“When I wrote for the Playwrights Project, it was really an eye-opener because I was kind of [in] a writing slump, or writer’s block, and hadn’t written in a while,” Miller said. “But that assignment forced me to write and helped me realize that I love dialogue and I love [setting] up these characters on stage, watching how they interact with  through dialogue and showing everything through their characterization. Overall, I’m very happy with the final draft, and I’m so thankful for all that the Playwrights Project has taught me.”