The play’s the thing! Behind the script with UCSD’S award-winning MFA playwrights

UCSD Theatre Department grad student David Jacobi described his playwriting objectives. “I was at this World Wide Wrestling event, which is really like a form of theater,” he explained. “One of the wrestlers stood up on the ropes and yelled insults at the audience. The audience got so riled up that after the event they went out to the parking lot and turned his car over! My goal is to generate that kind of excitement on stage. I would like to get the audience at my plays as riled up as the audience was at that wrestling match!”

Jacobi was just awarded his MFA degree and concurrently won an award for playwriting from the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

His latest play, “Widower,” performed at the recent Wagner New Play Festival on campus, tells the story of a washed-up lady wrestler, modeled on real life wrestler Tammie Lynn Sytch, who breaks into her drug dealing ex-boyfriend’s house seeking money and drugs. The boyfriend’s young son, visiting from his mom’s house, confronts her and in an odd transformation of enemies into allies, befriends her, based on their mutual love of wrestling.

The play features plenty of wrestling moves, including some with a giant stuffed teddy bear that the boy’s father has been using to hide his stash.

Kristin Idaszak, a fellow student playwright at UCSD, also won a Kennedy Center playwriting award, which is like an “Oscar” for graduate students, making UCSD the only college with two awardees. Icing on the cake: Jeff Augustin, a graduate from last years’ MFA program, won the Kennedy Center’s “Lorraine Hansbury Award” for African American playwriting — for the second year in a row.

In contrast to Jacobi’s pursuit of excitement, Idaszak said she approaches writing for the theater in a manner more round about. She takes her own life struggles — like dealing with family secrets — and then explores them through fictionalized stories she invents.

Idaszak’s contribution to the Wagner New Play Festival was “Second Skin,” which featured three long monologues woven into a kind of ghost story. In the play, a daughter comes home to reconnect with her mother who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The daughter discovers that her mother had a sister who was transformed into a “Selkie” — a drowning victim who lives forever young in the sea wearing the skin of a seal!

“You have to write about something that is personally meaningful to you,” she said. “If you’re not invested in your story, how can you expect the audience to be? For me, the issue in my play is what we don’t know about the people we are closest to.”

Although quite different in their approach to playwriting, both writers share a love of the collaborative process; they like working with the plethora of people involved in bringing a play to life — the actors, directors, choreographers, musicians, voice teachers, dramaturges, lighting, stage and costume designers.

“I will often ask the actors, who can really embody their roles, what one of my characters might say or do in a particular situation,” Jacobi said. “Then I go back and change the draft manuscript accordingly.”

Both are proponents of rewriting and developing their plays over time. “I was rewriting last year’s Wagner play, “Battlecruiser Aristotle,” up to the very last moment — until they told me I had to stop!” Jacobi laughed.

“ ‘Widower,’ my current play, started out as a 10-minute short in 2011. Now four years later, it has grown to be an hour-and-a-half long!”

Jacobi believes a play will partially write itself through happy accident, mistakes, chance and natural evolution, as other people in the theater interact with it. “You want to allow this process ... to be open and to trust the flow of change … and not over think things,” he said.

Idaszak agrees. “A lot of the ideas and issues in my plays percolate for a long time, and I’d say 75 percent of my writing is rewriting. As the actors, directors, and designers contribute input, things begin to develop and the work deepens.”

Jacobi said he came to theater later than normal, entering the undergraduate dramatic writing program at New York University when he was 24, after six years as a food quality inspector on Long Island, where he grew up.

Idaszak has been involved with theater since she was nine years old, when she would help her father in the scene shop at the West Spring Community Theater in Chicago.

After graduation, Jacobi spent three years in Beijing, China where he headed a theater company that produced plays spoken in English with visually projected Chinese subtitles.

His next project will be a musical called “The World Tree.” It’s about a soft-spoken character who discovers he has dementia and plans to commit suicide. Jacobi also has a play called “Mai Dang Lao” (Chinese for McDonald’s hamburger restaurant), which will open in Chicago next year.

Idaszak is moving back to Chicago where a fellowship awaits her at a local theater. She also plans to get married to her fiancée who also works in theater in the Windy City.