Gunn High School junior Saman de Silva has been part of his school's tight-knit theater community since his freshman year. An experienced singer and actor, he's also picked up tech-crew skills along the way. And thanks to his participation in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Young Playwrights Project this spring, he's now the writer of an original one-act play, with hopes of seeing it brought to life by local actors in a public virtual presentation on April 21.
"This is completely uncharted territory for me, which is why I've loved the experience so much," de Silva said. "This is something that was brand new."
The Young Playwrights Project, which this year has worked with not just Gunn but also three other Peninsula High Schools, matches theater classes with professional teaching artists, in this case Pear Theatre Artistic Director Sinjin Jones, who was brought into the program by TheatreWorks' Jeffrey Lo.
"I was curious to get to know a little bit more about youth theater in the area," said Jones, who started at the Pear in early 2020. "It's been a good way to get to know the larger community, which has been nice."
For the past few months, Jones has been twice weekly (virtually) appearing in the Gunn class, led by teacher James Shelby, guiding students as they create at least one original play each. Through lectures, games and exercises, he has taught about the basic tenets and classical structures of playwriting, as well as nontraditional methods.
"We spent the curriculum developing the ideas of, 'What is a character? What is a plot? 'Here's the conventional structure,' but as soon as I started writing, I called in Sinjin and he said, 'It's your play. Do whatever you want,'" de Silva recalled of Jones' encouragement of experimentation. "They give us the tools so we know how to break them. Or maybe that's just my anarchistic high-school outlook," he said with a laugh.
His play, tentatively titled "The Interview," revolves around a Chicago teen who's navigating the world of college admissions and family pressure. He said he drew on some of his own background as a person of South Asian descent, his main character experiencing "the stress and anxiety of the need to get into a good college from a cultural standpoint and from a self standpoint."
Jones and the class of juniors and seniors have come to know each other quite well over the course of the project, through "the mid-March stress of new beginnings, uncertainty, many looking at what comes next after high school and how that uncertainty culminates in a written piece," Jones said. "It is so different from person to person."
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that both the classwork and performances take place online, something Jones has had a lot of experience with over the past year as he's helped the Pear's productions translate to virtual formats.
"There's something both really limiting and also very freeing about the digital place," he said. "It doesn't feel as connected as being in the same room, but there's something interesting about students having the internet at their fingertips. We can pull up videos of anything, share resources — that has made it a pretty unique experience."
The student writers received feedback from Jones and their peers, and underwent rounds of editing and drafting. Jones was left with the difficult task of selecting eight of the plays to be presented in staged online readings directed and performed by TheatreWorks artists.
"After a couple of days of rehearsal, these students get to hear their plays in the Zoomverse," Jones said.
While the chance to have their work brought to life and seen by an audience is unquestionably cool, it's the entire process that's rewarding.
"I kind of had multiple revelations throughout this experience. I haven't written creatively since eighth grade. It surprised me how motivated I felt. I could not put my computer down; my mind was really swimming in ideas," de Silva said. "And how fantastic it was to hear my peers' creative process and what they were able to come up with. More than my own, I've loved to see what my classmates have produced. It really has made me realize just how personal the writing process is and how much it takes to really come out with a play."
Jones, too, has been pleased by the depth and variety of his Gunn students' work, covering, among other topics, stories of immigrants, mental health, fan fiction, and "literally, about pieces of carrot in a salad; a play about two pizzas … . It's so interesting to see such a wide breadth of what students are interested in writing," he said. "When you share some tools and allow them to write about what is meaningful to them, you get such a cool variety. I'm a big fan of unique voices and perspectives."
Plays by Gunn's participants in the Young Playwrights Project will be presented via Zoom on April 21 at 7 p.m. More information is available at theatreworks.org.