Last month, NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study opened its doors to student playwrights through the Gallatin Theater Lab. Run by Michael Dinwiddie, a playwright and professor at Gallatin, the lab encouraged students to submit a script for a one-act play for a chance to participate in an intensive two-week development program. This year, the lab opened applications to alumni for the first time.
The program pairs each student with a mentor, a director and a team of actors to develop their one-acts. The participants had one week to work on rewrites with their mentors, followed by another week to work with a director and actors in preparation for a reading.
Out of 17 applicants, Adi Eshman, Michael Zalta and Sage Molasky were selected to participate in the program. These talented writers highlighted important topics in their scripts while telling a captivating story. Each act captures the playwrights’ individuality, including their life experiences and their passions.
Adi Eshman started his undergraduate career at Gallatin in 2011, with a concentration called The Role of Narrative in American History, Society and Literature. According to Eshman, his focus was an intersection of dramatic writing, society and literature.
Though he considered working in film and television, Eshman decided to explore the world of theater in his senior year of college. He took his first and only playwriting class during his last semester, and he’s been creating plays ever since.
Eshman’s act “Bigger? Sugar? Figure?” is based on an original piece he wrote in 2018. Inspired by plays that featured freestyle, he decided that he wanted to incorporate the art form into his script.
“I was so blown away by the courage it takes to do that, and how fast you have to think on your feet,” said Eshman.
The act is set at a dinner party, and it focuses on a discussion between a white couple and a black couple. Conversation topics at their dinner table revolves around politics and race, with a dramatic shift when one of the white characters makes a mistake while rapping Kendrick Lamar’s “All Right.” This character makes the same mistake over and over until he gets it right.
Over the course of the week, Eshman thought his play felt a little too much like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which he referred to as “the quintessential American dinner party play.” In an effort to change the structure of the act, Eshman decided to underline repeating patterns by playing with time.
“I went to a subway station after that rehearsal on Wednesday, and someone had carved a swastika into one of the subway ads, and it just triggered for me a lot of emotions about how we just keep repeating things in our history,” said Eshman.
Eshman’s play directs the audience’s attention to the undeniable issue of racism in our society. Though the script only consists of one act, Eshman expressed his interest in continuing it.
“Even since I was writing in 2015, I’ve been really interested in how Americans look at race, how we look at gender and politics and how those things manifest themselves in very innocuous conversation,” Eshman said.
Eshman is currently keeping busy with a series of projects, including more playwriting, teaching and freelance journalism. He even started a theater group in his community, and has started applying to graduate schools for playwriting.
“I feel very lucky and very grateful that I can sort of figure myself out as an artist and as a teacher and as a writer,” Eshman said. “I think I have the courage to do those things in part because of what I learned in NYU, in my experiences in Gallatin.”
While Eshman tackled issues of race, his fellow playwright and recent NYU graduate Michael Zalta turned his attention to issues of ethnicity.
Zalta graduated from Gallatin last May, where he concentrated on Arab Cultural studies, Media Theory and Playwriting. During his time at NYU, Zalta was involved in Jewish Voice for Peace and Gallatin Theater Troupe.
“I sort of always used playwriting at NYU as a way to process everything that I’m learning that is so highly, deeply theoretical and just how do you put that in real life? How do you put that in an arena of human beings?” said Zalta.
Zalta’s act is called “Does it Explode?; Part II: Arab-Pessimism,” and is part of a full-length play he had written. The act is set in Brooklyn in 2002, and it revolves around two Arab-American boys who are divided by their different experiences as Arabs in post-9/11 New York.
Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Zalta highlighted heritage and xenophobia through “an exploration of post-9/11 media technology on Arab-American theaters in Brooklyn.”
The original piece also underwent some changes throughout the development process as a result of feedback from Zalta’s mentor, as well as the director and the actors.
“He was urging me, very interestingly, to explore the profound depths of my characters, whereas typically my work is way more cerebral, way more art,” said Zalta.
Zalta plans to use the feedback to improve the rest of the play, but he is also working on other projects. Though he typically writes about Arab-American themes because he feels that he has to be a voice for Arab-Americans, Zalta wants to move away from these themes and expand his subject matter.
Unlike Eshman and Zalta, Sage Molasky is a current Gallatin sophomore. Molasky is originally from Las Vegas and she transferred from Scripps College to NYU this year. Her concentration is in Sexuality and Religion in the Renaissance, and she focuses on the effect of the Renaissance on contemporary writing.
Molasky’s play “Foraging” focuses on conversations among three young women foraging in the desert. Although Molasky has acted and directed before, this was her first time writing a play.
“Because a lot of my research focuses on sexuality and religion in the Renaissance, the natural world really comes in a lot,” Molasky said. “I grew up in Nevada, and so it’s kind of an exploration of young women in the desert but that’s very much an idea that I work with in my concentration — women in nature.”
Molasky’s play not only encompasses relevant themes, but it also dives into very sensitive topics through the characters’ stories. Molasky discusses the female body and female sexuality without holding back, topics, she noted, that are often uncomfortable for men.
“I think that there will always be people who hear something like that and are uncomfortable because they’ve never experienced it, and I think that’s what’s so beautiful about art and about performance, because what I write is particular to what I want to say,” said Molasky.
Molasky also commented on the changes the script went through during the writing process. She said that the first draft and the final draft are almost completely different plays as a result of extensive rewriting.
Molasky started writing from a very young age, but she says that now she uses writing to confront issues instead of running away from them.
Moving forward, Molasky plans to continue writing plays. She wants to write more plays in connection to “Foraging,” but she also wants to experiment with other themes.
On January 25th, all three acts were performed at The Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts. Though they were all very different, it’s safe to say that they tackled important issues. Through this program, Eshman, Zalta and Molasky have only shown us a glimpse of their talent — and there’s much more where that came from.
Email Dani Herrera at [email protected]