“You Are Cordially Invited to Elika Strauss’ Birthday Celebration.”
Um, that’s nice. Parties are great! But what does that mean, and who is Elika Strauss?
The invitation is the title of playwright Hannah Weisz’s first play; Elika Strauss is the narrator — reliable? unreliable? conflicted? insane? creepy! — whose older twin sisters’ birthday song to her is replayed, year after year, change after change, insinuation after insinuation, in the 25-ish-minute production.
Okay. So who is Hannah Weisz?
Hannah is a rising senior at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange; she’s the daughter of Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson and producer, writer, media specialist, and photographer Craig Weisz; the family lives in Teaneck. She’s interested in writing, directing, singing, and acting, but is wary of being tied down either to any of those fields or any other area just yet.
So how did she get to have her play produced in a few different venues — the next opportunity to see it is at the Tank Theater in Midtown on August 22-24, or at the Latea Theater on the Lower East Side on November 9, 11, or 12. (See box.)
The story began last summer.
“I was in a theater program, part of the Columbia University precollege summer program,” Hannah said. That segment was two weeks long, and the students in it could choose between three tracks — performing, directing, or writing. That means each student could either take on one of those tasks twice or try two of them. “And the students were in charge of everything,” Hannah said.
“In the first round, I performed,” she continued. “The person who did the writing was a great writer, but English wasn’t his first language, so I helped him edit it, and I enjoyed it. So for the second round, although I thought that I probably would perform both times, I signed up to be the writer.
“I’ve been involved in theater before, but only as a performer. I’ve written, but not for the theater, mostly poetry and short stories. But the class I took before this one was creative writing, and it was one of the best writing classes I ever have taken. It got my creative juices flowing.”
She needed those juices. “I didn’t realize when I signed up to be the writer, but the actors and the director needed time to rehearse.
“So I only had one night to write it.”
One night? To write a play? That someone will produce, and actors will perform, and an audience will see?
It really wasn’t so bad, Hannah said. “It kept me from overthinking and doubting myself.”
She began with some direction. The program stresses collaboration; the randomly chosen group — Hannah, the director, and three actors — discussed what they’d like the play to be. “I went into it not knowing,” she said.
“They were helpful. They told me what they wanted. We were all on the same page. They said absolutely no romance. Character over plot. Meta and surrealist would be ideal. There should be no linear narrative; it was all to be really experimental.
“Two of the actors happened to look alike, and one of them mentioned that they wanted the play to be about family dynamics. The other also was a sibling.”
At first, that seemed like such a formidable undertaking “that I kind of blacked out,” Hannah said. “I had absolutely no thoughts. And then I started thinking about it. I threw something together.”
The process continued to be collaborative. Once she presented her first draft, “the actors started asking questions, and I had to figure it out.
“I had to totally improvise, out of my comfort zone.”
The play includes a song and dance that repeats with every birthday. “It was recorded music, a royalty-free track; I had to do sound editing,” Hannah said. “I composed the vocals and made the dance.
“Each scene starts with a new birthday, from 8 to 16,” she continued. “Elika, the main character, always starts by addressing the audience and introducing the song and dance that her older sisters, the twins, will perform. But they have different responses to each other, and it always develops differently.”
When they’re onstage, the actors respond to the audience, whose members are encouraged to react. “It is horror and comedy,” Hannah said. “Eighty percent of the script is stage direction, and half of that is reliant on the audience’s cues. The show very much acknowledges the audience being there. It’s all about Elika trying to convince them of the story she wants to tell, and it’s up to the audience to react to it.”
Hannah didn’t think that the play would develop like that when she was writing it, she said. “I wasn’t thinking so much about the audience then. I was just throwing down what the character would do next. I was exaggerating the feeling I have when I’m performing, when I want to get the audience on my side, supporting me. I am making the main character do that to a fault.”
After the play was performed at Columbia, as part of the summer program, Hannah applied to the Brick, a sort of new-play incubator in Williamsburg, and it was accepted. She got it published in Up North Lit, a literary journal in Austin, Texas, and she went to Austin to perform a monologue from her play. It was produced as part of the Eugene O’Neill Young Playwrights Festival; both are highly competitive venues for young artists. (The festival is accepting applications for next year, at www.theoneill.org/ypf.)
Through connections there, she was able to get the play into the Tank, the Brick, and Latea.
She doesn’t know what she’ll do in college and afterward, Hannah said. “Maybe theater or writing or both or neither. I don’t know if I want to rely on either of those industries favoring me in order to put food on the table. I’m not sure it’s a risk I want to take.
Who: Hannah Weisz
What: Will have her play, “You Are Cordially Invited to Elika Strauss’
Birthday Celebration,” performed in two venues
Where: The Tank, at 312 W. 36th St., Manhattan
When: August 22 at 7 p.m.; August 23 at 7 p.m., and August 24 at 9:30 p.m.
For more information: Go to thetanknyc.org, click on calendar, and scroll down to the show
Where: The Latea Theater, at 107 Suffolk St.,
When: November 9 at 9 p.m.; November 11 at 12 noon; November 12 at 8:30 p.m.
For more information: Go to newyorktheaterfestival.com and follow the links to the Winterfestival.