From the experiences of an East African immigrant working as a dishwasher to those of a long-term, loving couple, UC San Diego’s 2016 Wagner New Play Festival features five new plays, May 3 – 12, in The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theatre District located on the La Jolla campus. Two of the premiere pieces, described as highly personal and powerful, are by award-winning M.F.A. playwrights in the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Will Snider’s, “How to Use a Knife,” is the story of an East African immigrant who works as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant, where the kitchen hierarchy runs parallel to political hierarchies in his homeland.
Snider, a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood collective of emerging playwrights at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, sharpened “How to Use a Knife” last summer during the 10th Annual M.F.A. Playwrights’ Workshop at the Kennedy Center. Snider’s play was among six selected from a field of 93 for development at the workshop. Among many honors, Snider was recently a semi-finalist for the Princess Grace Awards Playwriting Fellowship and for the Page 73 Fellowship.
Along with his previous play “Death of a Driver,” performed at last year’s Wagner festival, “Knife” draws from the three years Snider spent working for an agricultural development non-profit in East Africa, primarily Kenya. He also leaned on his experiences moonlighting as a waiter in Manhattan.
“I wanted to explore the challenges of responding to violence with violence,” said Snider, who earned a B.A. in African history at Columbia University. “I became interested in this topic when I studied the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led army that invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990 and defeated the genocidal regime in 1994.”
“Go. Please. Go.,” by Emily Feldman, asks what it means to love someone for a lifetime as it traces the 70-year arc of a changing relationship between a man and a woman through marriages, bar mitzvahs, baptisms and funerals. The play is inspired by Feldman’s experiences growing up in a Jewish family. She attended Hebrew school, played on Jewish Community Center basketball teams and attended Jewish summer camp.
“I think growing up in a Jewish family shaped the way I communicate—I joke that my family has no secrets, because none of us would be any good at keeping them! There’s a direct way of speaking that I’ve noticed among many Jewish families that seems culturally specific,” noted Feldman.
She explained that her characters have parts of her in them, but she gave the leading character—a sort of everywoman—her own name.
“I was born in a year when ‘Emily’ was a very popular name,” she explained. “Everywhere I go there are at least four Emilys. It’s also the name of one of the characters in ‘Our Town,’ and Thornton Wilder’s plays inspired me when I was figuring out how this play deals with time.”
Feldman, who graduates in June, was recently named a 2016 – 2017 Jerome Fellow, along with her UC San Diego M.F.A. program peer Kristin Idaszak. The $18,000 award for emerging American playwrights includes a year-long residency at the Playwrights Center in Minnesota and $1,725 in development funds. This is Feldman’s third play at the Wagner New Play Festival, following last year’s, “Three Women in Four Chairs,” and 2014’s, “The Mango Farmer of Vermont.” In the past two years alone, Feldman has been a finalist for the Alliance/Kandeda Prize, a semi-finalist for the Humanitas/Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize, a Resident Artist at SPACE on Ryder Farm, and has received commissions from the Actors Theatre of Louisville and The TRIP in San Diego.
Along with the plays by Snider and Feldman, the Wagner New Play Festival includes Bennett Fisher’s, “Damascus,” Anna Moench’s, “Sin Eaters” and Lily Padilla’s, “Other People.”
The festival comes only months after the death last September of its namesake Arthur Wagner, the theater department’s founding chair, and a frequent presence at plays and other events until weeks before his death.
“I met him [Arthur Wagner] a handful of times, and I remember a lot of energy and curiosity,” Snider said. “Even in his final year he took so much pleasure in theater. This festival, also supported by his wonderful wife Molli, is an amazing outlet for young playwrights. He influenced generations of actors, directors, playwrights and designers in the American theater.”
The UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance is considered one of the top three theater programs in the country. The department also shares a close relationship with the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, and its graduate students participate in at least one professional residency. Upon graduation, many students go on to work professionally in theater, film and television. For 2016 Wagner New Play Festival dates and showtimes, visit the website.