Playwrights Project photo by Geri Goodale

STARS: Tehilla Fishman, center left, on stage at the Joan Kroc Theater in San Diego with the other winners of the statewide Plays by Young Writers contest, along with the event’s executive producer, Ms. Cecelia Kouma, back right, and director Ms. Kandace Crystal, back left. Front row from left, the other winners were Donny Cannady, Vincent Schillings and Eli Banoub.

11th-grade writing assignment becomes a prizewinning play

Tehilla Fishman wins statewide competition for one-act about talent and family in the teenage years, and sees it performed at San Diego’s Kroc Theater

An in-class play about piano, death and teenage emotions took center stage at a theater in San Diego earlier this year when senior Tehilla Fishman’s class playwriting assignment was produced there after winning a prize.

Tehilla’s play, “Gifted,” won a Certificate of Excellence from the Playwrights Project of the California Youth Playwrights Festival, and was produced at San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Theatre Jan. 26 through 28.

“I just wanted to explore the idea of what you do when something that you loved when you were younger and like devoted yourself to you no longer love that same way,” Tehilla said on stage at the Kroc Theater, when the Playwrights project presented her and her fellow winners their award on Nov. 12.

LIVE: Above, Ms. Liliana Talwatte and Ms. Gingerlily Lowe played Luna and her grandmother in the January performance of Tehilla’s play, “Gifted.” (Playwrights Project photo by Geri Goodale)

Along with two other high school students from California, Tehilla was selected from among 228 applicants for the prize. “Gifted” explores the emotions and experiences of a young ex-piano prodigy, Luna, who is “still reeling after the death of her grandmother, decides to take up the instrument again when her sister moves back in,” Tehilla said.

“I wanted to write about a teenage girl because I feel that it was relatable and was easy for me to write,” said Tehilla.

“There wasn’t one experience or person in my life that really affected my writing,” she said in an interview. “But do I think many of us have had the experience of being really gifted at something when we are younger, and then that activity becomes a chore and something that we resent.”

Like the plays of the other winners, Tehilla’s was produced by Cecelia Kouma, the executive producer of the Playwrights Project. It was directed by Kandace Crystal, who is the Associate Artistic Director of Trinity Theatre Company in San Diego and Artistic Director of American History Theater in Escondido.

Shalhevet English teacher Mr. Brian Forrester described the Kroc theater as “one of the most prestigious theaters in America.”

Tehilla and her family traveled to San Diego to watch the production.

“I really felt they did an amazing job with bringing everything to life,” Tehilla said after watching the production. “I had zero expectations of how it would come out. Because I wanted to be surprised, I stepped back when it came to watching practices and rehearsals before the actual show. I was basically in a state of shock when watching because the whole situation is super crazy.”

Tehilla began writing “Gifted” last year in Mr. Forrester’s 11th-grade Playwriting class, where it was written, rewritten and revised over many months as part of the class. Then last May, on a whim she submitted it to the contest, not expecting to win. In the fall she learned she’d been selected as a finalist.

I think many of us have had the experience of being really gifted at something when we are younger and then that activity becomes a chore and something that we resent.

— Tehilla Fishman, 12th grade

The other two winners, both also teenagers, were Donny Cannady of Fullerton, who wrote “The Notifiers” about officials delivering unbearable news to loved ones during the Vietnam War,; and Vincent Schillings of Los Altos Hills, whose “American Dissonance” described a Chinese-American woman’s finding her cultural identity.

The Playwright’s Project is a non-profit organization that teaches play writing to students in grades 3-12 in San Diego County, and also sponsors a statewide contest for teenagers – the California Young Playwrights Contest, which is what Tehilla won. According to its website, this year was its 38th annual festival. It also works with seniors, immigrants, incarcerated adults and others to teach playwriting while bringing their stories to light.

Judges’ comments – along with a live reading of one of one of the play’s scenes – were shared when Tehilla received the award in November.

“The conflicts are executed elegantly and paced excellently…,” wrote Judge Annie Weisman. “The character dynamics are unique, interesting, and complex.”

Judge Ahmed Kenyatta Dents said, “A beautiful story. The emotional stakes are clear.”

Both comments, as well as Tehilla’s remarks and a live reading of one of “Gifted’s” scenes, can be found in the recording of the award ceremony.

Tehilla said she has always kept herself in creative atmospheres, and has used her creative ability to learn about and create artistic mediums. She attends a Broadway play in New York every year – this past year it was The Music Man – and at school, Tehilla is a graphic designer and Chief Layout Editor of the Boiling Point and a TA for Ms. Sam Garelick’s 9th grade Visual Arts class.

She hopes to pursue her love of art in college after a gap year at Midreshet Torah V’Avodah.

But an outlet she had never thought to pursue was writing.

In Mr. Forrester’s Playwriting class, the final assignment was to write a play from the students’ own imagination.

“The assignment was simply to write a play, they could write whatever they wanted,” said Mr. Forrester in an interview, “and that is a really paralyzing thing to be faced with. Freedom can be the enemy of great creativity, but Tehilla had the ability to create a really wonderful play that resonated with the judges.”

He said the shape and organization of plays had been a subject of the class that term.

“Most of the work we did that semester was on dramatic structure,” Mr. Forrester said. “Most of the great stories written follow the same composition.”

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