New Plays Festival Interview: Ayvaunn Penn '18 & Gordon Penn '18

May 7, 2018

The Playwrights 2018 New Plays Festival consists of the 2018 MFA Playwriting Class Thesis Projects and will run through May 12th. There are only a few shows left!


Opening this week are The Feather Doesn't Fall Far From the Wing: A Play with Music by Ayvaunn Penn and Gordon Penn's Into the Zone We talked with these playwrights to find out more about their plays and the process of producing.



What inspired you to write this play? 


Gordon (Into the Zone)Into The Zone is a military comedy with enhanced interrogation techniques. The idea came out of one of my classes. We had to write something inspired by a previously produced play. I picked Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes, It’s a prison drama and a violent purgatory play. It reminded me of one of my favourite Eugene O’Neill sea plays, In The Zone, set on a cargo ship. WWI. Merchant Marines. Black out conditions. U-boat filled waters. Fear. Paranoia. This brew leads to mistakes, assumptions and ultimately needless violence. I set mine in an Army barracks on lockdown. The Soldiers are bored, hungry, frightened and angry. They abuse each other to kill time. To compensate. This show reflects the adversity all Soldiers face and ultimately their resiliency. It’s about subjects I know well and characters I understand. I’ve spent the past ten years as a member of the United States Army. 


Ayvaunn Penn (The Feather Doesn't Fall Far From the Wing: A Play with Music): One morning this past summer I was having private devotional time reading the Bible when I came across Isaiah 14:12-17 (KJV) speaking of the fall of Lucifer, and it absolutely captivated me. I couldn't get it out of my mind, and I knew in those following days that it was around this story that my thesis production would revolve. There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding Lucifer's fall in scripture. We can read that it happens, but there are no detailed accounts, and we'll never know exactly how everything transpired. Likewise, though there are certainly passages of scripture that mention angels fulfilling God-ordained tasks and some descriptions of heaven, one still does not get a full picture of the day to day life in heaven or how angels pass the time. Hence, my imagination was ignited, and I dare say that out of those flames emerges a most radiant diamond called The Feather Doesn't Fall Far from the Wing: A Play with Music.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in writing and producing your play? 


Gordon: The cast of Into The Zone is made of eight of my fellow 2018 MFA students from the acting program. Some have been on this train since we did a short one act version of in Anne Bogart’s Collaboration class. We have grown this project together and I couldn’t imagine doing it without them. So, we had to work around these brilliant performer’s extremely busy schedule. It is a very short rehearsal process due to their all being out in Los Angeles doing their showcase for agents, managers, and casting directors. I am thrilled for them. I spent a few years managing actors out there. I understand the joys and struggles faced by actors as they begin their professional career. Still, I was glad to get them back and get to work. Into The Zone is a very physical show that starts with a prologue of drill and ceremony and ends in torture and a huge fight. It would be difficult to put up this fast, but the cast, the director (the amazing Ann Cooley, who I am most fortunate to be married to), everyone; we have built this show together from the ground up. I am excited every day I get to watch them all work.


Ayvaunn: First, I have to say that God has blessed me with an absolutely amazing, talented, and hard-working cast and team that has greatly facilitated our creative process. Hence, the production side of this play has gone pretty smoothly. In the writing process, the greatest challenge I faced was not psyching myself out by thinking "Omg! My life depends on this play." Not true. Once I got into the joyously adventurous heat of writing the story — or as Prof. Mee says, "writing the story I want to see" — it was a pure ball of fun.



 Is there a specific faculty member or peer that especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?


Gordon: First off we are the luckiest writers in America. At Columbia, we get to train with three of the world’s great living playwrights: Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, and Charles Mee. It still seems unreal to have spent the last three years studying and working with them. You feel valued here. They are a trinity of support. Chuck is the coolest living legend going. David, who has projects working all over the world and yet is always here for us. He is our biggest champion and you can feel how badly he wants us to succeed. In our third year, we get to ask a writer to be our mentor. Any writer from anywhere. I didn’t need to go looking, I knew early on that I wanted that guidance to come from Lynn Nottage. She’s the greatest. A tremendously powerful writer with excellent craft who understands my projects. Lynn was the first to urge me to embrace my military career and use it to mine stories and characters from. Lynn earned her second Pulitzer Prize last year, but seemed more concerned with making sure the dramaturgy of my show was perfect. She inspires me to write with such a force, that I came back from spending the fall as a visiting artist in China and presented Lynn with three scripts. It has been a truly life changing time.


Ayvaunn: What I love about the Columbia MFA Playwriting program is that each professor is SO different. I have learned equally from each. Because I had the honor of training under three distinct styles and approaches from three unique theatre legends — Prof. Hwang, Prof. Nottage, and Prof. Mee — I feel absolutely empowered to dive into the world of playwriting, be myself unapologetically, and be confident that I will succeed. 



If you could change one thing about theatre, what would it be?


Gordon: I spent the 1990s in Chicago’s store front theatre scene. Chicago in the 1990s was blazing with talent. We were producing what I feel was the best theatre in the United States at that time. I was performing, directing, improvising, and ultimately producing. Then I moved to LA, started managing actors; television and film became my near exclusive focus. Then I joined the Army, turned 40 in basic training and have been doing that ever since. Now, after years away from theatre, I somehow found my way back. I love theatre. I don’t know if I would have the slightest idea of how to change it or what to change if I could. Back in Chicago, we mostly didn’t have any money, but we never let that get in the way of telling the story. Theatre evolves with the world. I can’t wait to see where it goes. I’m just grateful to be here.


Ayvaunn: That's something I'd rather the world watch me do. Join in the adventure by following me on to stay updated on my own theatrical works. Follow me on to stay abreast of how I'm spotlighting black excellence in the performing arts. You don't want to miss what I have coming next!


by Gordon Penn
May 10, 8:00 PM
May 11, 2:30 PM
May 12, 7:30 PM

The entire base is on lockdown. While the cause remains a mystery the Soldiers of Echo Company are confined to their barracks. As the day wears on, they slowly turn on each other while their leadership descends into madness and violence in this comedy about a tragedy.


By Ayvaunn Penn
May 9, 3:00 PM
May 11, 8:00 PM
May 12, 3:00 PM

Written, composed, and directed by Ayvaunn Penn, The Feather Doesn’t Fall Far from the Wing: A Play with Music is the perfect elixir of poetry, song, and dance. It reimagines Lucifer’s fall from heaven while bringing into fantasy a sister who takes over as heaven's new minister of music and a jealous brother who can’t be trusted to keep her secrets.