Dos Pueblos hosts the 20th annual Young Playwrights’ Fest

The Young Playwrights’ Festival celebrates 20 years this weekend of giving early voice to writers, bringing their seven short works to the stage for a full production. Over the years its participants have gone on to became authors, artists and published professional playwrights.

“It’s amazing, this program,” says Gioia Marchese, who is directing all the plays this coming Saturday.

Professional actors star in all the productions, with familiar Santa Barbara names like Jeff Meek, Rich Hoag, Samantha Eve and Shannon Saleh. They’ll be joined by recent Dos Pueblos Theatre graduates Manny Unzueta, Robert Rodarte and Blake Benlan, as well as current theater students. TV’s “Switched at Birth” writer Alexander Georgakis — also a Young Playwrights alum — will host and moderate the question and answer afterward.

The guidelines are wide open in subject matter, and the students have responded in kind.

Justin Ealand’s “Ghost Town,” set centuries ago, features eight villagers with mild amnesia realizing that one is a murderer. Gordon Dawson’s “Eternal Night” is a coming-of-age story set in medieval times. There are two plays set in the future: A.J. Nisich’s “Trial by Fury,” about a more sensationalist justice system, and “When Souls Collide” by Santi Melendez, who looks at the future of dating and love. Three other plays have contemporary settings. “Crushed,” by Cayla Henry, is about a teen who doesn’t want to accept the truth about her best friend. “Struck…Literally,” by Aivy Nguyen, follows a teen star who meets someone similar to himself, who is also different from his public persona. Natalie Nelson’s “The Ten Minutes” is set in a college interview where many difficult, real questions arise.

Over its two decades, the competition has moved homes many times. Festival producer Clark Sayre started it as a part of Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, then it moved to Access Theater, the Ensemble Theatre and Rubicon Theatre; it finally settled at Dos Pueblos High — where Mr. Sayre teaches — three years ago. All the students currently involved are from the high school’s writing class.

The director, Ms. Marchese, has known Mr. Sayre since she was a 10-year-old, and eventually made her way through his writing workshop. Four years ago she started choreographing Mr. Sayre’s spring shows at the high school, and sharing some directing. For a while she ran a small theater company in New York.

“I try to stay with the writer’s intention and shape it into the best play possible,” she says. “One of the hardest things for young writers is to have both strong vision and a good flexibility when actors come in and bring a new perspective that the writer didn’t see. And sometimes writers are pleasantly surprised by that, they see things that they hadn’t imagined when they were writing. And others hold on really tightly.”

However, sometimes the latter is the sign of a future writer, “because they have that strength of conviction. But it’s still good to go to that uncomfortable place.

“A lot of students feel that their voices aren’t respected or heard. But here everybody is taking their words seriously, and treating them like professionals. Many students discover that they’re writers here.”

One of the program’s best success stories is Quinn Sosna-Spear, who wrote a play for the festival so good that Santa Barbara?\u2012based actor Devin Scott commissioned her to write “In All Honesty,” performed at the Rubicon Theatre in 2011. “She was that kind of student who couldn’t imagine even being a professional writer at the time,” Mr. Sayre says. “But she ended up going to USC and majoring in screenwriting. She has a super promising career ahead because she did step up and say, ‘Yes, I am a writer.'”

20th Anniversary Young Playwrights’ Festival
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Elings Performing Arts Center, Dos Pueblos High School,
7266 Alameda Ave., Goleta
Cost: Donations accepted
Information: (805) 968-2541 ext. 2646,

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