Playwright Stephen Karam has made a splash off-Broadway with one play and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with another. But for memorable moments in his stage career, he says there’s nothing quite like his teenage triumphs in the Blank Theatre’s annual young playwrights competition and festival.
“When you see people taking your work seriously at that age, it makes a big impression,” said Karam, 32. “For the first time I thought of myself as a real writer.”
For two decades, the small, Hollywood-based Blank has presented plays and musicals by students 19 and younger with directors such as Barbara Bain and Jeremy Sisto, mentors such as Garry Marshall and Terrence McNally and actors such as Sarah Michelle Gellar, Debra Messing and Chris Pine.
“We’re one of a few national young playwrights programs that professionally produces the work,” says Daniel Henning, the Blank’s founding artistic director. “Rather than emphasizing a classroom approach as some do, we treat writers like professionals throughout the process.”
This year’s Young Playwrights Festival will run May 31 through June 24 at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood. (The Blank also is holding a 20th-anniversary benefit show June 3 at the Avalon Hollywood.)
The dozen members of the class of 2012 include the youngest winner ever, 9-year-old Spencer Emerson Opal-Levine from Sarasota, Fla., and three Californians: Emma Steinkellner, 17, of Santa Barbara; Elana Zeltser, 16, of Sherman Oaks; and S. Dylan Zwickel, 19, of Manhattan Beach.
The range of subjects and styles represented “always makes me happy in that it’s never easy to describe,” Henning says. “These kids will break the rules because they never were taught there were rules.” Submissions have included what he calls “typical high school stories” and “sophisticated topical pieces.” Ten winning works later appeared on the Blank’s main stage, including the post-Columbine “The Why” in 2000, which earned Victor Kaufold, then 19, an Ovation writing nomination.
Among the current offerings, says Henning, are “a deeply emotional play about loss of love, a nostalgic look at 12-year-olds on the last day of camp, a story about the future when older folks are no longer deemed necessary, and plays about a talking bear and talking coffee beans.”
The bear, beans and other outside-the-box characters can make festival casting a challenge, says Henning, as can the number of roles. “The writers have freedom. There’s no artistic director saying, ‘What, 25 people in this play? Are you insane?’”
He and the Blank are lucky, he says, “because we know a lot of people,” and casting directors Scott David and Erica Silverman, both Hollywood veterans, “keep an eye out for new talent while helping us get celebrities’ agents to take our calls.”
Finding a famous or soon-to-be-famous face in the ensemble has become a festival tradition. Even the first year’s lineup included Emmy winner Ed Asner, a pre-"Saturday Night Live” Molly Shannon and a pre-"ER” Noah Wyle. (Wyle is now the theater’s artistic producer and remains active with the festival.)
“It’s great for the audiences,” Wyle says, “and for the playwrights, who know that their plays are being cast professionally with a mix of actors, some of whom are young and some of whom are well known.”
Entries for each year’s competition are due in early spring — about 190 arrived in 2012, slightly more than usual. Selections are made by a committee that includes directors, writers, actors, educators and previous winners.
Students are matched with dramaturge-mentors, who help strengthen their scripts and offer moral support. Rehearsals and performances (each piece runs for four days) can provide lessons — and thrills — onstage and off.
“Janet Carroll and Robert Pine, Chris Pine’s dad, were in my first play, and they were so astonishingly good I felt it raised my game instantly,” says Karam, a three-time festival winner. He also remembers going for a smoothie with Alyson Hannigan, who was acting in another of his pieces. “She was starring in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ which I loved.... I was so nervous, thinking, ‘How did I get to be a part of this?’”
Watching his plays — and audiences’ reactions — for the first time was “exhilarating and nerve-racking,” Karam recalls. He notes that when the Blank mounted his off-Broadway hit “Speech & Debate” at its home, the 2nd Stage Theatre, in 2008, “I had the same butterflies I had when I was younger, which is a credit to how they made us feel like professionals, not kids, back then.”
To mark the 20th anniversary, the theater has surveyed past winners and in other ways revisited the history of the festival, which Henning started three years after he founded the Blank in 1990. One source of inspiration was New York-based Young Playwrights Inc., which Stephen Sondheim established in 1981. The Blank has presented more than 230 plays by 175 writers, its focus expanding from local to national, readings eventually replaced by staged performances.
Actors receive small stipends; others volunteer their time. A team of apprentices — mostly college students and recent grads — helps put on the shows. “We can’t cover all expenses for out-of-town students,” Henning says, “but we do what we can.” Funding for the event comes from grants, individual donations and ticket sales.
Many winners say the festival gave them the confidence to keep writing. As a kid in Scranton, Pa., Karam spent a lot of time in his room working on plays but never envisioned a career in playwriting. “There was no clear path for pursuing this kind of passion,” he says. “Getting this validation was crucial.”
Karam’s “Speech & Debate” debuted in New York in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Roundabout Underground series before its 2nd Stage production. His play “Sons of the Prophet” was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Austin Winsberg grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended Brentwood School and thought about becoming a studio executive. He says the festival, in which he was a five-time winner, “taught me a lot and made me believe in my ability to write.”
Now 35, he is an L.A-based writer-producer whose credits include creating the ABC series “Jake in Progress,” working on the CW’s"Gossip Girl” and writing the book for the musical “First Date,” which premiered in Seattle this spring.
Winsberg, who like Karam graduated from Brown University, has served as a selection committee member, director and mentor. As have many winners, he has kept in touch with Henning, whom he calls “the epicenter of the festival.”
The Blank program’s influence extends beyond helping to launch careers. At the end of one opening night, Henning says, he found a boy who had written about a school sports hazing incident sitting outside the theater. When Henning asked if he were OK, the boy said yes. “Then, he said, ‘This is amazing.’ And then he told me this was the first play he had ever seen.”
“To give somebody the opportunity to have their voice heard and also be part of something they may not have known about is very exciting,” Wyle says.
“Every year, we finish a festival and say, ‘Gee, do we want to do all that again?’” Henning says. “And then we remember experiences like that one and we say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll be back.’”