PERHAPS YOU’VE HAD people tell you math and English can’t mix. Don’t believe them. Thespian alum Gabi Garcia is as adept at writing code as writing plays, and she’ll be the first to tell you her skills in one subject make her better in the other.

As a student at Sunset High School in Portland, Oregon, and member of Thespian Troupe 5604, Garcia carved out time for both interests. She began attending App Camp for Girls at age 13. By the time she was 16, she had progressed to its lead developer intern, a role created especially for her. At the same time, Garcia saw her plays produced at the Oregon State Thespian Festival and Portland Center Stage’s Visions & Voices showcase.

2019 Thespian Playworks finalist Gabi Garcia.

2019 Thespian Playworks finalist Gabi Garcia. Photo by Corey Rourke.

Garcia’s high school playwriting career culminated in her selection as a finalist for the Thespian Playworks program at the 2019 International Thespian Festival. In Ismene, Garcia imagined a sequel to the classical Greek play Antigone, looking at the aftermath of Sophocles’ tragedy from the perspective of several of his secondary characters.

Garcia now attends the University of Chicago, where she’s still contemplating which career path to pursue. “I’m changing my prospective major every day,” she said. “Right now, I’m thinking about classics, statistics, or computational and applied mathematics. The great thing about the University of Chicago is they encourage you to explore your options through a rigorous core curriculum, so I still have a while to decide.”

Regardless of her final choice, Garcia sees more playwriting in her future. “I hope to write more roles for women and explore my voice a little more,” she said. “After submitting Ismene to Thespian Playworks, I temporarily swore off writing tragedy, but the development process throughout ITF showed me the power of tragic writing as a reflection of the world around me. My next project is more comedic, though, and I’m looking forward to developing it when I’m not swamped with schoolwork.”

When and how did you first become interested in playwriting?
I started writing plays in fourth grade, but I began seriously writing plays my sophomore year of high school. My advanced theatre class included a playwriting residency through Portland Center Stage called Visions & Voices, which made me interested in potentially writing for the stage as a career.

What inspired you to write Ismene?
In my junior International Baccalaureate English Literature course, we read Jean Anouilh’s Antigone as part of a works in translation unit. During one of our in-class discussions, a classmate commented that it was strange that Oedipus, Eteocles, Polynices, and Antigone essentially got their own plays in the traditional Theban cycle by Sophocles, while Ismene got practically nothing. I thought that was an interesting point, so I took it and ran with it. I read Antigone as research over the summer before putting my pencil to paper.

Writing stories for women is very important to me. I feel that I have a responsibility to tell stories that represent myself onstage. If I don’t tell my story, who will?

Your script changed quite a bit from your Thespian Playworks submission to what audiences saw in the staged reading at the 2019 International Thespian Festival. How did you approach the evolution of your writing? 
To be honest, I wrote the majority of the first draft of Ismene the night before it was due, so I was more than willing to adjust it. I had a staged reading at my high school’s one-act festival, which emphasized parts of the play that did and didn’t work.

In May, I met with playwright Andrea Stolowitz of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and discussed Ismene with her. She asked me about the Greek conventions I did and didn’t use in the piece — I had mentioned that, initially, I wanted to stray from Greek style to set the piece in modern times — and encouraged me to consider the impact of pulling directly from ancient Greek tradition, particularly in the addition of a chorus. I also had a long email chain with Mark Kaufmann, my dramaturg at ITF, in which we discussed potential adjustments to Ismene. I ended up redrafting it with the chorus a week before ITF, which required me to cut and rewrite about half the play.

After the first day of rehearsals at ITF, I restructured about half the play again to tighten its style. Essentially, three distinct drafts of Ismene exist, each one (in my opinion) significantly better than the previous version. In Thespian Playworks, I learned that dramaturgy is probably the best invention ever for playwrights, and seeing your work rehearsed or performed repeatedly gives you a better perspective on what works and what doesn’t in your play.

In high school, you followed passions in both English and math, defying the stereotype that most people fall into one camp or the other. What is it about the combination of the two disciplines that appeals to you? 
I think math and computer science can both be very creative, much like the arts. Each time I make an app or write a program, I’m putting a piece of myself into the work I create. I also enjoy problem solving. There’s something extremely satisfying about following logical steps to reach an answer, which is why I like math. Studying both the humanities and STEM allows me to exercise my brain and learn how to think about the world in different ways.

Playwriting is all about perspective and observation, so my math and science skills have absolutely made me a better playwright. I believe that the greater the breadth of your knowledge, the more you can explore the world through different lenses. A professor encouraged me to pursue a major outside of theatre in order to expand my understanding of the world. Though I’m not planning to study theatre in school, I am working at Chicago’s professional Court Theatre this year as an intern.

Playwriting allows me flexibility that math and science do not. When I write, I like to establish a set of rules for the universe I’m operating in, then systematically break each one by the end of the play. Math doesn’t quite work like that, but I use that experience to think outside the box when solving problems. For example, in my senior AP Statistics course, I knew I wanted to do something theatre-related for my final project. Through a lot of creative research and 18 hours compiling a spreadsheet, I performed a statistical analysis of Broadway show grosses. My experience navigating the Playbill website and adamantly pursuing my interests helped me succeed in that project.

What advice would you give Thespians who may be interested in playwriting but aren’t sure where to start?
Actively seek out mentorship. I got to where I am through the support of many people, including Matt Zrebski and Clara-Liis Hillier of Portland Center Stage and James Farmer of Sunset High School, among many others. Then begin churning out ideas. One of my favorite exercises from Visions & Voices was designed for idea generation: We’d listen to music and look at pictures, then write down any thoughts, questions, or associations we had with each piece. It pushed me to think differently about the world, especially because we had to keep writing ideas for five to 10 minutes at a stretch.

And keep asking questions. Playwriting is asking questions about the world without forcing your views on the audience. Think about who, what, where, when, and why. Especially why. That’s what theatre is for.

Are you interested in writing? Learn more about Thespian Playworks, sponsored by Concord Theatricals, online.

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