Two Playwrights Win Recognition at Festival

Photograph: Aya Ogawa. Photo Credit: Amy Callahan.
Photograph: Celeste Guzman. Photo Credit: Amy Callahan.

Two undergraduates who have taken courses in the Barnard College Theater Department were recently chosen as regional winners in a playwriting competition of The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Celeste Guzman, BC'97, and Aya Ogawa, CC'97, were among the top four winners chosen in the new category of "The 10-Minute Play." Their entries were selected among 45 in the competition.

Their plays will be performed at Barnard this week: Thurs., Mar. 28, at 6:00 P.M. in 229 Milbank Hall.

Aya Ogawa, CC'97

Aya Ogawa is drinking her coffee black, with a lot of sugar, and is not happy about the state of theater.

"A lot of mainstream theater is not relevant to what is going on in society right now," she says. "I'm trying to reconcile myself with that: What is my place in the theater, and what is theater's place in society?"

Ogawa has been involved in theater since childhood, and began taking it seriously about eight years ago, mainly as an actor. Now a theater major, her first attempt at playwriting grew out of a course she took with Columbia College Dean Austin Quigley, called "Drama, Theater and Theory."

"I found that class really inspiring and fascinating," she says. "He made us look at where theater is going, through where it has been. I believe something drastic has to happen for theater to survive and for it to become vital. Because people don't go to the theater. They go to the movies, or they stay home and watch TV."

Ogawa says her concern is not allayed by the popularity of big Broadway productions.

"You can go see 'Cats.' That's great." She looks up from her coffee to reinforce her sarcasm. "Who cares? Even "Miss Saigon' obscures the issue of the woman. It portrays this Oriental woman as this beautiful, passive, 'I'll-wait-for-you-forever' type--that's getting really old for me fast."

Ogawa's prize-winning play, temporarily titled "Serendipity; Or a Post-Modern Farce," which she wrote at 5 o'clock in the morning, is about a woman who, in meeting a palm reader, becomes involved in unexpected emotional intimacy. The short play is the first that Ogawa wrote, and she is reluctant to explain the larger meaning behind the work.

"If I could explain it, I wouldn't have to write it," she says.

Instead, she offers the insights of others who have seen it. Some people have said it is about alienation and isolation. Others say the play is about the constant, relentless motion of life. Ogawa says, "No matter how much you want to be with a person or hold onto that moment, that can't happen."

Ogawa knows something about constant motion. Ask her where she is from, and she pauses for a moment, as if she's trying to remember. Born in Tokyo, she grew up in Atlanta, Houston and in different cities in California, including Monterey, where she became active in her high school's theater program. She wears a mechanic's shirt with a name patch, "Mike," on the chest; her nose is pierced a couple of times; her combat boots are well worn.

Ogawa is a Japanese citizen, but has a green card ("Actually, it's pink. And blue," she says.), and plans to stay in the U.S. to work in theater after graduation.

"My parents were nervous about it," she says. "They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or something. My mother was worried about how I would make a living."

When asked if she is worried about it, Ogawa says simply, "No."

She has already taken a year off of Columbia, worked odd jobs in San Francisco and got involved in the theater scene there. Of her future she assures: "I'm going to make enough money to do what I have to do. It's not my goal to make a lot of money, live in the suburbs and raise a family."

Celeste Guzman, BC'97

Celeste Guzman admits she was an excitable child who was always performing. She is still that way: quick to laugh and addicted to theater. The way Guzman tells her story--that she flipped a coin to determine where to attend college--she gives the impression of frolicking through life, rolling wherever fate takes her.

But beneath her carefree charm is a tenacious artist, a published poet, a double major Centennial Scholar (English and theater), with an ability to explore through writing the intense emotional bonds of family.

Her winning play, "Burnt Sienna," is about a mother and son who live out their relationship through letters written by the husband and father, who is dead. The son reads the letters to his mother to the point where the words are memorized by both, and take on new meaning.

"This is the only way they can communicate," Guzman explains. "This is how they can agree with each other. This is how they can be tender with each other."

This intensity between mother and son may reflect Guzman's devotion to her own family. She is a Mexican-American from San Antonio, Tex., and she has every intention of returning to her roots when she finishes school. She says her grandparents were "adamant" about her getting a good education.

"I feel as a Mexican-American woman, it's important for me to go back and give to the community that supported me. I definitely feel a sense of responsibility. I've met too many women--specifically women--who wanted to get an education, but, because they were women, they had a certain role."

When deciding where to go to college, Guzman, the salutatorian of her high school class, says she flipped a coin. It was either Southern Methodist University, in her home state, or Barnard, a college she had previously never heard of.

"I didn't even know what the heck Barnard was when I applied," she says. But she was invited to visit New York City, tour the campus, and she was hooked.

"They really made me feel welcome," she recalls. "I fell in love with the campus. And I thought it was a place that would really help me grow as a woman."

She has also grown as an artist, exploring her talents as an actor and writer, and intensifying her love of the theater.

"What's so awesome about theater is, it needs an audience," she says. "For theater to really happen, you need an audience."

In addition to her writing and acting, Guzman also works part time and has an academic career to nurture.

"You have to balance your academic responsibilities with the theater work," she says. "And then balance your personal life, which," she adds with a laugh, "is nil."

Columbia University Record -- March 29, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 21