Aiko Lozar with the cast of herwinning  play “Love Is Blind: A Spoken Word Play.” Courtesy Geri Goodale of Reminisce Photography

Calling all budding young writers! If you’re 18 or under, why not try your hand at a play? Just come up with some characters, a conflict and some dialogue.

The Playwrights Project is seeking submissions to its 36th annual California Young Playwrights Contest.

The idea was the brainchild of Deborah Salzer, Playwrights Project founder, who says, “When I lead classroom residencies today, I tell students what I said 36 years ago: ‘I believe you have stories to tell, truths you know that no one else knows.’ Today, finding one’s voice is more important than ever.”

With all of us quarantined, there are likely to be plenty of characters and conflicts right in our own homes. But for this contest, writers are not constrained by content, subject matter, style, form, story, or cast size. Let your imagination soar.

Last year, 561 plays were submitted by students from 56 schools in 26 school districts around the state. The end-result was three winners who received full professional productions, and two in the ‘younger division’ whose plays were presented as staged readings.

Anyone age 8-18 is encouraged to submit an original, unpublished play written individually or in partnership with another student or two. Scripts should be a minimum of ten typed pages, using proper play format that is spelled out on the Playwrights Project website. There is no page maximum.

As long as each play is original and unpublished, students may send in multiple submissions.

All contest entrants can request individualized feedback on their scripts, with suggestions to consider for future revision. Surprisingly, only 83% requested that written feedback last year. One would think that having your work read and constructively evaluated by professionals would be an exciting and helpful experience.

All submissions are read blind (which is to say, without any identifying information: name, age, gender or school). The evaluation process is three-tiered.

Contest Coordinator Rachael VanWormer, along with two volunteers, reads all submissions (usually, 500-600 plays). The top 50 scripts are then reviewed by Playwrights Project executive producer Cecilia Kouma, who works with VanWormer to select finalists. A panel of Final Judges evaluates the finalists and selects several for production.

Winning playwrights are honored at a special celebration. Over a period of time, the young writers work with the Playwrights Project creative team and a dramaturg (literary editor) to revise their script so that their play is ready for a professional production at the annual Plays By Young Writers Festival. The current plan is for this year’s Festival to be held at the San Diego Repertory Theatre March 4-13, 2021. The deadline has been extended to June 30, 2020.

Past Festival winners have gone on to wildly successful careers in writing (Lauren Yee, Josefina Lopez, Karen Harman, Annie Weisman, Eliana Pipes) and many of them have come back to help with subsequent Festivals — reading, judging, and encouraging the next generation of writers.

During the school year, the Playwrights Project has residencies for writing instruction in San Diego County schools, specifically those for at-risk youth, though many of those programs were abbreviated or aborted this year, due to the pandemic.

“We’ve definitely been talking about some distance learning tools,” says Kouma, “and using social media. I think that, right now, kids need to write, to process their concerns and passions. Theater is a wonderful resource for thinking on their feet. Student stories need to be told. And the Festival, which is typically attended by many school groups, serves as an inspiration to other students.”

One of last year’s winners, Aiko Lozar, took liberties with form and style. Her submission, “Love is Blind, A Spoken Word Play,” was set in a futuristic dystopian society, where love, and so many other aspects of life, is controlled by the government. But one young woman believes in free will in love; she thinks a person should have the right to love who she wants, without “social dictating.”

Aiko was 15 when she wrote her piece, 16 when she won. She had had no training in playwriting, and no prior exposure to Playwrights Project. But she did have experience writing prose and poetry, including for speech and debate at Carlsbad High School.

“When you’re selected as a finalist,” recalls Aiko, a bright, self-possessed, incredibly articulate young woman, “you’re given the option of having a phone or in-person interview. I figured, they’re in San Diego, so I drove down. I think I was the only one who chose an in-person interview. They were really welcoming. They asked about me and about the play, about my process and why I chose to write it in poetry. They asked me to explain the characters and they also asked what I would cut.”

This was actually the third incarnation of Aiko’s piece. In her freshman year, she wrote a 10-minute version that she performed herself. Then, in spring 2018, she expanded that into a full-length one-hour play with 16 characters. The same year, she self-produced “Love is Blind” through the Student Production Club she founded. The final festival incarnation, with eight characters (played by six adult actors) was 25 minutes long.

What inspired Aiko to choose this format was “a desire to combine the writing of Shakespeare and others that incorporate poetry into their work. But I wanted to modernize it, make it contemporary, make poetry a way to express yourself. I also wanted to incorporate technology. A theme throughout is how the oppressive society, the government in their world, controls who can be together, when and how they find love.”

In the play, people are programmed to see color when they meet the designated “right person” for them.

“Today,” Aiko continues,  “people get caught up in dating apps and algorithms, instead of getting out and finding connection themselves. My whole message is that love should be blind, based on interaction, not on any algorithm.  It’s a rebuttal to government enforcement. But though I really like ‘1984’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ I wasn’t trying to make a political statement.”

She admits to having had her own experience with love, since she’s been in a relationship since 7th grade, with a guy she met through science class. Although she thinks they have “polar opposite passions” (he’s into biology and track-and-field) and she’s into “creativity and art,” she also happens to be on the robotics team at school (“the business part of it,” she clarifies).

“I love writing in poetry,” she says. “It’s easier for me than prose. My brother exposed me to the world of rap. I veered off into the world of spoken word. I’m not musical in any way, but there is a certain musicality behind spoken word.”

She considered her Playwrights Project adventure to be “kind of like an out-of-body experience. It’s so cool to see something you came up with in your head performed by other people who are trying to figure out what I mean.”

The experience “opened me up to playwriting,” Aiko says. “It gave me exposure to the behind-the-scenes of playmaking, and gave me a new passion for that.  It also exposed me to Lauren Yee [the most-produced playwright in the U.S. in 2019], who was one of the final judges. I idolize her plays.”

Since her Playwrights Project win, Aiko has been reading and writing more plays. She’s submitting one to the 10-minute play competition at New Village Arts theater in Carlsbad, on the subject of isolation. She’s in the advanced theater class at her school, for which she appeared in one show (“Almost, Maine”) and was supposed to be co-directing another (“Amalie”), but it was canceled with the quarantine.

Although she enjoys writing (a poem she submitted for a writing contest was just accepted for publication in the poetry journal, Kelp), she’s more interested in directing and producing, and plans to major in Business Administration in Film at college.

She has some advice to other students: “You should definitely submit. It’s an amazing experience. As cliché as it sounds, you should write about what you know, especially when you’re a high schooler. Then there’s a truth behind what you’re saying. Use elements of what you know, like personal relationships. Then, it could be set anywhere.”

Contest Coordinator VanWormer is gearing up for this year’s submissions. She  has a pool of 35 readers at the ready (high school drama teachers, Playwright Project teaching artists), and 20 letter-writers (for the initial feedback). Training is provided for all judging groups, though all of them, she says, are “people who have worked with Playwrights Project in some capacity. Some are past winners.”

VanWormer, who’s been coordinating the competition for four years, has a long history with Playwrights Project. She was a contest winner herself — when she was 16. Now, looking back and ahead, she has her own advice for students:

“If there’s anyone out there interested in submitting, it’s a great year to do so. There are likely to be fewer submissions, and it’s a great way to use up time, be creative and be productive.  One of the things this [coronavirus] situation is granting us all is a lot of time to recognize what we really miss and clarify the things we really want to do. There’s a lot of mileage to be got in focusing on something people like to do and how and why they’re unable to do it now. That has great potential to set up a conflict in a script. Take a look at why and how and what you’d do to overcome the conflict.”

You now have extra time. Start. thinking and writing.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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