A scene from "Unpresidented"
Genia Santini as Melania, and Carlos Silva as Donald Trump in “Unpresidented.” Photo by Gabi D’Amico.

It’s always fascinating to explore what students are thinking about — especially in these complicated, uncertain times. See what insights you can glean (virtually) from the 6th Annual Festival of New Plays at San Diego City College, and from Carlsbad High School’s first-ever student-written musical.

Six years ago, just when Dr. Katie Rodda became co-chair of Visual and Performing Arts/Fine Art & Drama at City College, the college opened a second performance space. To inaugurate the new, 85-seat Black Box, she says, she “wanted to do something related to City College directly, and I thought that should be original plays.

“Students have such rich stories,” she explains, “and such fascinating lives. I thought they should write about what they knew best — their own lives.”

The Drama Program offers a Playwriting class; in addition, one campus English professor, Farrell Foreman, teaches a playwriting unit. But the Festival is open to any City College student. If they are not current students, and their play is chosen for presentation, they need to enroll in the Theatre Workshop class during the semester of production.

Typically, there is no special topic for submitted plays, but this year, says Rodda, “we strongly encouraged the theme of Social Justice.”

There were an impressive 30 submissions. Eight were selected. Most are, as requested, 10-15 minutes in length.

One playwright, Brody Gogatz, a City College “success story,” has two pieces in the Festival. After working at Best Buy for years, Gogatz enrolled at City, received an Associates degree, and went on to graduate from SDSU, majoring in Theater and subsequently serving as Rodda’s assistant director and choreographer on other productions. Now relocated to the Sacramento area, Gogatz will virtually participate in the required class.

His two plays are “53 Years,” which recalls the loss of a parent to police violence, and “Unpresidented,” a 5-person musical parody about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Melania Trump. Gogatz wrote the book and lyrics.

Rodda is directing three of the other pieces:

How We Talk About Racism,” by Kaileykielle Hoga, a documentary-style play that evolved from interviews with four diverse San Diego women, expounding on uncomfortable truths about race. The Filipina playwright interviewed four of her female high school friends — one white, one Black, one Asian and one Latina — posing questions like: What does the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement mean to you? What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic, and as a result of the death of George Floyd? When was your first awareness of racism?

“She rolled all the responses into a really good play,” says Rodda.

Three Things,” by Eddy Lukovic, takes place during the turbulent summer of 2020, amid the pandemic and nationwide social unrest. A Black professor meets with a student (the actor is Cambodian) who comes from a rough background and has found purpose in protesting. Both realize that they have more in common than either of them thought.

“Directly related to the BLM movement, it’s an explanation of what it means to protest today,” says Rodda. “It doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is hopeful.”

Purple,” by Gabriela D‘Amico, focuses on a man and woman in their mid-20s, BFFs who confess a long-hidden attraction. Then they’re are forced to take a hard look at the realities of their relationship.

The other plays are “There Are No Sunrises,” by Denessa L. Cazares, in which a child of immigrants becomes a witness to losing a parent to ICE; “Refugee,” by Thomas Moon, which is set after the collapse of civilization. A group of survivors seeks to carve out a life for themselves; and “Te Extraño” by Natalia Araiza, in which a young woman and her mother have a conversation about participating in an upcoming rally.

“All the plays in the Festival are fascinating,” concludes Rodda. “It’s really gratifying; the students are just so smart. And they come from such a wide range of background and experience, ranging in age from 18 to 60+.”

Up in North County, another interesting theatrical production is taking place. The Carlsbad High School Student Production Club is joining with the Carlsbad Theater Department, which has been producing well-known musicals for more than 40 years. But this is the first time a musical was written by students.

Aiko Lozar, a senior, founded the Student Production Club in Fall 2020, as “a platform for students to write, produce and act in their own plays.” She has been “writing since I was a kid. My Dad, a doctor, was a writer in his free time. From the time I was very young, we were always  

talking about story structure. I wrote short stories and novels, mostly unfinished.”

As part of a Speech and Debate competition, she wrote a ten-minute poem, “Love is Blind,” which went on to win several prizes, including a Novice Level Regional award. She had no experience or training in playwriting, although she “read a lot of plays” and acted in school drama productions from grade 4-12.

That poem was expanded into a wonderful, imaginative play, “Love is Blind: A Spoken Word Play,” which was a winner in the 2019 statewide Plays by Young Writers contest sponsored by the Playwrights Project based in San Diego.

Last year, her club was set to make a movie, and the high school’s Theatre Department was gearing up for a spring musical. But all plans were, like so many other things, thwarted by COVID-19. Matthew Fauls-Rivas, head of the award-winning Theatre program, reached out to the Production club and asked if they’d be interested in creating a musical.

The club’s writing, editing and music Committees, comprising 11 students from four different grade levels and two different schools, set to work, grouping themselves into rotating trios and spending five months brainstorming, character-building, writing, editing and composing, with bonus opportunity of collaborating with New York composer James H. Kennedy. Lozar was a writer on one team and an editor on another.

The result, “Falling Star,” is a 21-scene one-act with 11 songs and features ten performers (11 worked behind the scenes) directed by Fauls-Rivas.

The story, as described by Lozar, focuses on Carina, a resident of the Italian town of Palminovas, who works in the bakery with her best friend, Marie. Carina is grieving the loss of her mother, who died several years ago. Now, every third of the month, stars fall down from the sky and Carina collects them. She believes her mother is sending them to her. But the stars are preventing her from moving on.

Both Carina and her mother were writers, but she hasn’t been able to write since her mother’s death. Then, her friends sign her up for a playwriting contest. She has to decide whether to attend the contest or collect more stars.

“Some of the songs are upbeat,” says Lozar, ”some are soulful. “One, ‘Let Me Take You Out,’ is a tango with Carina’s love interest. And there’s one spoken word/poetry number, ‘Do You Remember:’, that I helped write.”

There’s considerable overlap between the participating groups.

“A lot of club members are also part of the Theatre Department,” says Lozar. “I’m part of Advanced Theatre as a class. Mr. Fauls-Rivas gives me musical tasks to do. I didn’t have a role in the show; I have more of a bird’s eye view.

“It was definitely a collaborative effort all around,” Lozar continues. “Every single person was vital to the whole program. There’s a general sense that things may suck, and sometimes they hurt. But at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. That feels like the sentiment of most students right now.

“Carina goes through turmoil, but she comes out a stronger person. More trusting, more open to friendships and relationships. It becomes a little bit easier for her to open up to people, knowing that they’re going through some of the same things.

“Though we were always known as the digital generation, I think the pandemic has made us appreciate in-person interaction more. A lot of people are being a lot more present.”

The 6th Annual Festival of New Plays by the City College Theatre Program will be available for Viewing from April 29 – May 16 at festivalofnewplays.com. Viewers, who can choose among the eight plays or watch them all (about 2 hours total), will also be able to meet the playwrights and interact as an audience member. All plays are free of charge, but donations are welcome.

Falling Star,” the first-ever student-written musical from Carlsbad High School, will be streamed from May 13 – May 16 only, from 7:00-8:15pm. Tickets ($12 per viewer) are available at www.showtix4u.com.

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.