Satire nabs writer a coveted trip with noted US playwright
On short notice, Rianna Simons found herself on a month-long residency in Tuscany, one of four playwrights shortlisted for the 2023 Yale Drama Series Prize.
The invite came from Jeremy O. Harris, the American writer whose work Slave Play received multiple Tony Award nominations in 2020.
As he explained to The New York Times, the finalists’ works were chosen from about 1,700 submitted because they were “doing something a little different; a little off the beaten path”.
Although Jesús Valles ultimately won the Prize, Simons captured Harris’s attention with White Girls Gang, a short play she started working on as an undergraduate student at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in the UK.
The 21-year-old described it as “satire about a book club gone incredibly wrong”.
“It's about this group of White women. They're in a book club and they're trying to understand Audre Lorde and in so doing, end up revealing all of this stuff from their past that they use to destroy each other and themselves.”
While she studied playwriting and written scenes for plays at Royal Central, the 2022 graduate had never tackled a full-length script.
“The specification for the prize was that your play had to be 65 pages long; my play was 66. I sent it off to the Yale Drama Series Prize, which is this big American playwriting award, thinking that nothing's gonna happen with it,” said Simons, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in screenwriting at Royal Central.
“And then I got an e-mail in early March: ‘You've been shortlisted for this award and as a result of being shortlisted, do you want to come to Italy for a month?’ It was really nice.”
Harris, a Yale graduate, came up with the idea for the Substratum programme and served as the writers’ mentor throughout the retreat in Castiglioncello Del Trinoro.
Simons hopes her writing degrees will help her carve out a career in theatre and television.
“That's the goal; that's the dream. I really love theatre. I really love writing for theatre. So if I could make a career out of it, that'd be great.”
The idea did not come until after she had left Bermuda to do her A-levels in the UK.
“When I was doing my GCSEs we were reading plays by Arthur Miller and Ibsen and all these really old White dudes. And when I was doing my A-levels I was reading contemporary plays by people who are still alive and I was like, ‘Oh, this is nice. I could do that.’”
She wrote a monologue “just for fun” and showed it to her drama teacher who encouraged Simons to do a playwriting course.
“And so, here I am basically.”
Back at home, people pushed her to enter Famous for 15 Minutes, the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society’s playwriting competition.
“But I just never got around to it,” she said. “But yeah, there's a really great theatre scene in Bermuda. I've chatted to a lot of people.”
Meanwhile, her family was supportive of her change in career plans.
“When I was doing my undergrad, I had basically intended to do a teacher training certificate and become a teacher. But then I realised with my course, because there's all these elements – we get to work with young people and children and vulnerable groups – I was like, I don't know if this is for me.”
Her first thought when the e-mail from Harris came through inviting her to Monteverdi Tuscany, a boutique hotel and Medieval hilltop village, was that it was a scam.
On discovering it was real, she focused on taking advantage of the gift. Two weeks later she was on a plane.
“I spent that time trying to write a new play. I was writing a pitch for my master’s but on the whole I got to meet a lot of really cool people.”
The big thrill was being coached by Harris. Aside from that she met Lena Dunham, the writer and star of Girls, the Golden Globe Award-winning HBO show, several film producers and Netflix executives.
“It was just really nice,” said Simons. “I have had people reach out to me about producing the play professionally so I'm waiting to hear back from them. But my main goal is to have more things in my portfolio. So I've got this play; I’m writing a TV show to pitch.”
The hope is that when she finishes her course in September, she will have completed a draft that she can then send out for commission.
“It all feels really crazy,” Simons said. “This is my first play essentially, my first full play. I feel really lucky and when I was in Italy, everyone was so nice. I was really worried that it was gonna be really stressful but it was just really nice.”
Aside from her studies, copywriting for the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute and a part-time job at the National Theatre in London keep her busy.
“It's nice having a job that's in theatre but not writing, if that makes sense. I still get to know what's going on; to chat with really cool people.”
Her hope is that at the end of her course she is not empty-handed with work and struggling to come up with a Plan B. As if to put her mind at ease, Harris asked if she would write about her Substratum experience for Vogue online. It published on May 4.
“I think because there's been such interest in my play, maybe things will be fine. Things will be OK,” Simons said.
For more information on Rianna Simons and White Girls Gang visit rianna-simons-writes.squarespace.com/
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