Playwright Tony Vellela On How A Play Can Continue To Resonate
When Admissions by Tony Vellela opened in New York in 1999 its frank portrayal of race and identity garnered it rave reviews and the Excellence in Playwriting Award from the New York International Fringe Festival. Today Vellela’s powerful story is just as important and relevant almost twenty years later. Playscripts sat down with the author to discuss the play and its importance in a contemporary world.
In your view what is Admissions about?
Tony Vellela: Every generation believes they have conquered the demons of personal prejudice. But, like shape-shifters, these demons still manage to return again and again. Only the details differ – be they racism, misogyny, homophobia, status in society, age, physical characteristics, family heritage or others.
This play introduces us to seven college students who appear to be standard-issue young people, whom we can make snap judgments about, based on what we initially see and hear – clothing, skin color, speech.
We soon discover that our own tendencies to make snap judgments have fooled us into thinking that we “know” these young people.
And we see that they apply that same tendency to each other.
In the play they execute a take-over of their college president’s office to protest proposed tuition hikes. The realities of living together in one room over a period of time force them to abandon polite behaviors, in order to achieve their goals.
What inspired you to write this play?
Several years ago, I wrote a book titled New Voices, which looked at political movements on American college campuses. To gather the research, I visited twenty-five schools. What I saw, as an older person, was that these conditions were alive and well. They were not, as older people like to believe, conquered and eradicated.
Pulling examples from among the dozens and dozens of students I talked with, the characters in Admissions represent the variety of dynamics that operate on campuses.
It shows that genuinely-motivated college students who are active in fighting for their particular cause can also be guilty of stereo-typing each other. This is until the close quarters of their chosen situation force them to confront their own hidden prejudices and agendas.
How does this play speak to the world today?
Audiences today are always surprised to find that these feelings and attitudes are there at all, let alone, in many cases, deeply rooted and based on false assumptions about each other, and the “group” they represent. Admissions pulls in its audience as they become silent members of the activist group taking over a president’s office. They are pulled into each person’s personal challenges and the harsh, stinging confrontations as they emerge.
Who should perform this show?
It’s my view that the perfect place for Admissions to be presented is on a college campus, in part because its characters are all college-age students. Anyone producing it will see that this play can be very easily mounted – several chairs, a small table and a telephone – a blessing for any production with a limited budget.
What is important for potential producers of this play to know?
A good play, I was taught, needs to be both specific and universal.
Admissions manages to do both, with the excitement of witnessing close-up, fully-realized young women and men, confronting each other and themselves, as positions shift, as opinions are shredded, and as alliances and friendships must stand or fall, moment to moment.
Esteemed veteran theatre director Austin Pendleton, who oversaw three separate New York productions, including the one that garnered both the Best Play and the Best Ensemble Acting awards at the New York International Fringe Festival, would always say that this is a play about interruptions.
About the Author:
TONY VELLELA writes the monthly theatre column Intermission Talk , which is also syndicated at several sites across the country. His play Admissions, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre is published by ArtAge Publishing. He’s also written eight other plays and musicals, including Mister and What We Don’t Confess, three books, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles.
He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, Character Studies. The television documentary he wrote about AIDS, The Test of Time, for Lifetime Television, was a CableACE Award-winner. He has taught various theatre classes at the New School, HB Studio, Columbia University Teachers College, Lehman College and other institutions, and conducts small-group sessions and private coaching from home.
He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild of America, East and the Mystery Writers of America. He is married to New York University IT analyst Howard Fink.