March 8, 2007

Funny Freshman Wins Drama Prize

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Jonah Eisenstock ’10 started his playwriting career with a splash last month as his first “serious” play, The Anniversary, won first prize in the Heermans-McCalmon Playwriting Competition. Open to all Cornell University undergraduates, the contest awards a first and second prize to the two best one-act plays. Winning first prize, Jonah was awarded $500 and the honor of staging his play at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts on March 2 — Jonah could not be happier.

“[The Anniversary is] the first play I wrote seriously,” said Jonah. He previously completed another play that got produced in his Los Angeles high school’s playwright’s festival. But to Jonah, that was no big feat. He told me about his high school effort, “I was doing it for shits and giggles I guess. I was doing it, kind of, on a whim. And it was crap. Kind of like a comic book adapted to a play, I don’t even remember.”

Jonah is a funny kid. Not only does he not remember what his produced high school play was about, but he is a member of the Whistling Shrimp, Cornell’s only all-improv comedy group. He also loves comics and the amusing plays of David Ives. Even when he talks about his drama, he is not too serious. With The Anniversary, Jonah did not try to convey any moralizing or didactic messages; rather, he wanted to write something real. “I didn’t have a message in mind, because to me, it was more of, the message was these guy’s lives,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to convey. Even though they’re not real people, I wanted to try to just, I don’t know, give a snippet of this point in their life.”

The play does resonate as real. Two conversations between brothers, Mulberry and Rickard, occur on the anniversary night of the death of their mother. Although Jonah describes Mulberry as the “older, but less competent brother,” the difference in age is later discovered to be five minutes — the brothers are twins. Not only does Eisenstock make the brother’s ages (almost) the same, he describes a point in the two brother’s lives where their problems relate. Although Mulberry may be less competent, he ends up relating to his brother — the line between who helps who is blurred in the conclusion of the play.

In such a short and bare play, dialogue becomes the focus. Eisenstock’s gift is creating such realistic characters — amazingly, Eisenstock simply “made them up.” I asked him about his inspiration. He said, almost goofily, “I got this picture in my head, of like these two dudes on a cliff. These two guys on, like, a cliff — like, a just grassy hill. And they’re just sitting there. And so I’m like, ‘O-K … what’s going on?’ And I just started to think about who they are, and what they’re talking about, and those guys became Mulberry and Rickard.”

Jonah is a casual, and charmingly awkward, teenager, with a knack for capturing people, and maybe even himself. “They [Mulberry and Rickard] are not based on anyone in specific. But they’re kind of like… they’ve got aspects of who I am. And they’ve got aspects of other people I know,” he said.

Jonah may be introspective and self-aware, but he does not take himself too seriously. He loves performing with the Whistling Shrimp, and when I asked him which he liked more, playwriting or comedy, he said with a laugh, “Don’t make me choose! I gotta, I feel like I gotta do both! The Shrimp take up a lot of time and I love that. And then, I have also gotta — I have so many ideas for plays and stuff that I just want to get done.”

Certainly, Eisenstock can be both a serious playwright and a goofy actor. But for now he is also a student. He proved himself a meticulous and hard worker, going through countless drafts to complete The Anniversary. He says he is crunched for time now, but always has ideas in the works. With his good humor, schoolwork cannot keep him down. Soon, he’ll finish another great play. In the meantime, I know he’ll be having fun.

When I asked him what he plans to do with the $500 award, he said, “I think I’m just going to take all my friends out to dinner!” Now that’s the wining idea.