Tales from The O'Neill: Solid Sand Below & Samsara from the Playwrights Conference

By Sophia Saifi
July 11, 2013

The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center is one of the most prestigious workshopping retreats in the countries for writers looking to develop their work.



The 2013 conference currently has eight plays in development, two of which have already been seen by audiences in the form of public readings. Martin Zimmerman's Solid Sand Below and Lauren Yee's Samsara kicked off a series of public readings that will continue through the 28th of July.

Set in two drastically different geographical and cultural settings, the plays are similar in that they both address difficult sociopolitical issues.

"All of the plays are structurally inventive, telling stories that haven't been told before," said Wendy C.Goldberg, artistic director of the Playwrights conference. "There is a sense that this particular artist is telling it in a new way." 

The Solid Sand Below is an exploration of war and its varying effects on people. In 2006, the war in Iraq was in disarray, it was widely criticized and many Americans wanted an exit strategy. In response, President Bush sent in a surge of 30,000 troops in an attempt to stabilize the situation.

Zimmerman's play is set in that timeframe. The narrative follows a young man who enlists in the army in an attempt to prevent being charged for a felony. He lands in Iraq at the beginning of the surge and his resulting transformation that makes up the compelling plot. The impact of engaging in battle is not what the audience would expect. The Solid Sand Below addresses themes of post traumatic stress disorder, the heady dance of warfare and the emptiness that veterans face after returning to lives that suddenly feel silent and hollow.

Zimmerman was inspired to write the play when he read an article about a solider in Iraq who kept reenlisting in the army because he found the experience to be significant. The only reason he stopped was due to the stress his actions caused his mother. The tale of passion inspired Zimmerman, and he immediately immersed himself in first hand accounts of soldiers in Iraq as well as stories by journalists embedded in warzones. Zimmerman is fascinated by the effects of warfare on the human mind and soul.

"We talk about people in combat having a universal experience. They have all been through the same things," he said explaining the idea behind The Solid Sand Below.

"One of the things that struck me in my research was that everyone has a unique experience of it and that often times their sensory perception of what is happening is like unbridgeable divides. Some people will go into it and be completly devastated by it and some people will go into it and will find it incredibly meaningful."

Cast and crew of The Solid Sand Below.


Lauren Yee and Seth Bockley
In The Solid Sand Below, Zimmerman's characters drink sewage, describe their comrades' deaths through images of blood and sand, and journey, searching for fulfilment, through grit-filled streets in both Iraq and the United States.

"It is quite different from anything that I have experienced," said Goldberg, elaborating the visceral power of watching The Solid Sand Below. "Artists get to a point of violence and there is a black out or a a blast but he (Zimmerman) is actually trying to theatricalise that moment, and it is really interesting."

Directed by Ken Thompson, The Solid Sand Below's cast was made up of Felix Solis, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Ryan King, Brian Quijada and Scott Drumond.

Meanwhile, playwright Lauren Yee's Samsara is a look at the complexities of surrogacy and the yearning associated with wanting children.

Samsara is a Sanskrit word which means a "continuous flow." In Hinduism, this flow is the continuous cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Samsara the play follows the same circles of desire, loss and epiphany.

The play follows a young American couple and the tenuous connection they have with their feisty Indian surrogate. Samsara deals with tropes of the exotic, of what defines the other and how cultures can clash, combine, and create all at the same time.

The audience is treated to moments of intense rationality and scenes where characters delve into the realm of magical realism.

Yee started work on Samsara in 2008 after reading an article about the rise of surrogacy in India. For Yee the system seemed sensible. "It seems like everyone is getting exactly what they want," she said.

However, the instant repulsion that some people had to the idea of surrogacy caught Yee's imagination.

She wanted to explore "the idea that Western people were going into a country that is not their own and implanting themselves into these women who were doing it for the money and were quite poor."

The play is set in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is the hub of surrogacy in the country. Surrogacy was legalized in India in 2002 and since then has made it affordable for infertile middle class couples from developed countries to have babies.

According to Yee, "the play is a whimsical meditation on why people make babies, how the process affects them and how daydreams begin to invade your consciousness."

Directed by Seth Bockley, Samsara's cast was made up of Daiva Deupree, Mike Doyle, Lipica Shah, Bhavesh Patel and Phillip Taratula.

The actors have four and a half days to prepare and rehearse for public readings of each play. 

Actor Andrew Rannells (The Book of Mormon) was present at the O'Neill as a guest and he summed up the environment perfectly, saying, "They are dealing with new versions every day and it's really impressive how they put everything together. It’s pretty nuts."