Young Playwright's 'Descent' Puts His Career on the Ascent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A teen-age boy lusts after a skinhead. So does a girl. A transvestite wants to become a girl. They speak of being trapped in "Toyland," a seemingly ideal Hallmark-card world, but a place in which they cannot express their secret emotions.

These themes and more all bubble up in a half-hour play written by Jay Schwartz, 18. As a winner in the annual contest of the California Young Playwrights Project, Schwartz's "Avatar of Descent" is being professionally staged in San Diego.

The presentation may be unorthodox, but Schwartz, a 1989 graduate of Culver City High School, says the play depicts the all-too-common process of emotional breakdown.

Amid a set dominated by a huge desk piled high with books, the boy starts with "the image of himself as a normal American teen-ager," Schwartz said. "Once he realizes he's attracted to another man, (his self-image changes) to that of a female." The message he gets from parents, peers and the media is that homosexuality and any unconventional expression of intimacy are wrong, he said.

The boy's "incarnations"--as a boy, girl and then as a transvestite and a skinhead--embody guilt, "loving things you hate, (and) dislocation because you don't feel you belong in society," said Bartlett Sher, director of "Avatar."

In the play, all the incarnations talk--but never to each other.

"The form is exciting . . . and the content is new. Both are brave," said Sher, who directs an experimental multimedia performance group in San Diego and teaches drama at San Diego State University.

"It's really heartening to see a young playwright try and write in an experimental mode, out of the normal realistic or naturalistic play-writing mode," Sher added. "Lots of the stuff ends up looking like . . . TV shows."

Schwartz said "Avatar" is based largely on observations of his friends in senior year of high school.

"I found that a large portion of my friends were dealing with a struggle of sexual identity, more specifically, homosexual identity." He said that he did not go through that struggle himself and is not gay but that he had other emotional tug of wars that contributed to the play.

"Avatar" is his first serious attempt at a play, Schwartz said. He began writing in seventh grade, starting with poetry, and was the editor of the Culver City High School literary magazine his senior year. He was "thinking a lot about experimental structures" and was doing a lot of writing when the idea for "Avatar" popped up.

Sitting at his computer, "this voice came to me--it was the voice of the (girl incarnation)," he said. He wrote a prose piece and after hearing about the playwright competition from a friend, adapted it into a play.

Schwartz, among about 60 youths who entered the California competition, was surprised to win. "I had forgotten about the play, almost. I just sent it off--I did not think it would (win)."

Now he has entered "Avatar" in the national contest of the Young Playwrights Festival, a program founded by Stephen Sondheim in 1980 and the model for the California project. Results will be announced in the spring. But otherwise, Schwartz, now an Occidental College freshman interested in linguistics and cognitive science, is "quite undecided" about his future.

California Young Playwrights Project nevertheless tries to not only "stimulate young writers to write original plays" but "challenge them to continue," said Deborah Salzer, founding director of the project. It runs on about $75,000 a year contributed by the California Arts Council, businesses, foundations, the San Diego Unified School District and other schools, and San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company.

The 5-year-old program has directors, writers and performers teaching play writing in about 40 junior and senior high schools throughout Southern California, Salzer said.

The highlight is the annual contest, open to anyone in the state under 19, and which this past year attracted entrants as young as 9, Salzer said. Judging is by a panel of professionals. Schwartz and the three other 1989 winners got a $100 royalty, one-year membership in the Dramatists Guild, the professional playwrights' organization, and the gratification of seeing their plays come to life.

To Schwartz, the most valuable part of winning was working with the director and cast and learning how something that's "been just in ny mind" is transformed to "appear on a physical place." He went in thinking of his play as "my baby," but realized that other people's input and changes improved it.

The script is frank, including enough four-letter words that the playbill has a warning about the language.

"Jay doesn't censor himself. He just tries to push himself into the experience," Sher said.

Whether the audience understands the play, Sher contends, is not necessarily the point. "It doesn't give in to any cliches or easily reducible themes. . . . (Schwartz) approaches it in such an honest, yet weird way--you experience the crisis rather than understand it."

What prevails in the end is the skinhead's philosophy of hatred and despair. Each of the incarnations takes the "path of least resistance," of falling into self-hatred rather than resolving his or her conflicts, Sher said. They give up and watch television.

The skinhead notes:

"We're women and men/ trapped inside a vacuum of desire,/ too tired to breathe the breath of death,/ but at least we'll reveal the family secret:/ We quit."

"It's not a happy ending," Schwartz said dryly.

The 1989 winners of the California Young Playwrights Project competition are performed at the Elizabeth North Theatre, 547 4th Ave., San Diego, on Wednesdays through Sundays until Jan. 21. Besides "Avatar of Descent," the plays are: "Someday," by Gina Bowman of Anaheim; "Setbacks," by Eric Kobrick of San Diego, and "The Testing of Abraham," by Aaron Arredondo of Fresno. All four are performed at each seating. For more information, call (619) 234-9583 or Ticketron outlets.

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