22 Stories, a FringeNYC show currently playing at IATI Theater, showcases both a distinct age and an exceptional playwright. Seventeen-year-old Sofia Johnson, a senior at Bard Early College High School, has written a play that captures the angst, torment and conflict of teenage years, from an insider’s perspective. 22 Stories follows Nicole, a motivated, academic student as she struggles to come to terms with the suicidal drop of her twin sister, Natasha. I sat down with the purple-haired prodigy Sofia to discuss the play’s trajectory, from a script on paper to a show at the Fringe.
The High 5 Review: As a twin, I can definitely relate to the idea that you present in 22 Stories of two siblings with divergent personalities. Did you imagine Natasha and Nicole first as extremes and then as characters?
Sofia Johnson: Yes, I did imagine them as extremes. The idea of twins having these polar opposite personalities and having to confront these differences constantly – because simply, technically they’re so close all the time – creates something that is very interesting to see on the stage. It was only after writing some scenes between the twins, along with some internal monologues, that I was able to understand who these people were and where they were coming from. So the characters eventually began to speak for themselves, and it was amazing.
H5R: I can imagine that seeing those paper characters come alive must have been thrilling. That process – casting, revising, and rehearsing – is often a very intensive one. Was there a main challenge that you had to overcome?
SJ: I did have writer’s possessiveness; with the ending, it took a long time to figure out. There were a lot of scenes where the director, Anna Wilson, would have one idea, and if the thought of the idea was really not working with the words of the play, I would have to restrain myself from saying, “No, that’s not how it is!” We needed to figure out the ways that she and I were in control, and trying to make them coexist. But it was great to have someone that I trusted so well and had known for so long, because this is my first show: if anyone’s going to mess it up it might as well be her, because at the end of the day we would still see eye-to-eye on many of the things.
Overall, though, I do try to be open-minded, but there are still some things that tick me off – like when the cause & effect gets thrown off… that’s when my Mama Bear instincts kick in. Is it a challenge? Yes. Did things go back to the way I had originally wanted them to? Also, yes.
H5R: So you got your way, in the end?
SJ: Yeah, it was kind of a U-Turn of things first not going quite the way I want. Then I object to it, and then I finally get used to it and suddenly, “Oh, just kidding, we’re changing it back again.” But obviously right now, I’m very happy with the way it is.
H5R: Okay, so now one of those dream-situation questions: if you had a few more minutes beyond the Fringe limit, or a few more months beyond the deadline, what would you do?
SJ: If I had a few more minutes or months to write, I might have expanded on the home life of Nicole and Natasha. It’s such an interesting home life, where the parents sympathize more with the rebellious teenager than the studious one; it would be interesting to see that interaction and would shed some light on how Nicole and Natasha developed into those two types of teenagers. I would also expand the friends scene, because I love her friends and they’re so much fun to write. In terms of the ending…I don’t want to think about it anymore, I am done with it.
H5R: How was opening night? Were there any surprises, pleasant and otherwise?
SJ: The house was less than half-full, but the pleasant surprise came from our fabulous venue director, who told me that our show had sold more seats than any other show that day, which was the opening day of all of Fringe in general. And of course, it’s been a pretty rewarding experience to hear people’s feedback, because the show’s been within this small circle of people who have been acquainted with it, in and out, for six weeks, and to have other people look at it was refreshing. It’s nice to be able to take your head out from underwater every once in a while.
H5R: I just wanted to take the time to mention an especially memorable reaction – remember that lady who spoke during the talk-back with the French accent?
SJ: That was one. That was unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced.
H5R: Possibly the best quote of the night: “Twin-ness is a magnifying glass onto the universal need for unity.”
SJ: She said that!?
H5R: And it wasn’t scripted.
SJ: I think that’s the prime anecdote there. Although my friend did text me – her parents own a little coffee shop nearby- and she said that one of their regulars had come in, seen one of my play postcards, and said that she’d seen the play and loved it – which is nice, though not nearly as anecdotal as that. That really takes the cake.
H5R: People tend to write off plays about youth as “Young Adult” genre-literature. Do you think your play falls into that category? How is 22 Stories different? Does it aim to be mature, as opposed to targeting an age group?
SJ: A lot of the problems in there are especially issues that high school students struggle with. Those are everyone’s struggles, so everyone can relate…but teenagers find these challenges particularly relevant. I think one of the main aspects that distinguishes 22 Stories is that with a similar play and plot, it would be an adult dictating what they think a high schooler’s life is like. In the case of my play, this is what I feel like, as someone who is experiencing this and is explaining my own emotions, and you’ll just have to take my word for it. This is what a teenager is feeling. In that sense, yes, it can be themed ‘young adult’, though I don’t like to classify things as young adult or adult, because that can restrict audiences.
H5R: How have you been enjoying the Fringe experience?
SJ: I love it. It’s beyond amazing. Everything about this has been so completely surreal, and the fact that we went to a Town Hall meeting and I got to hear what everyone’s show was about….knowing my play fit in with all of these shows and then having auditions, realizing that here are people who want to be in a show I’ve written- that was crazy, too. Being in tech and being in the house, thinking that I was going to have my work here and seeing it on stage all the time – it’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
H5R: And finally: with your show on stage and going strong, what have you learned? What’s the “Take-away”?
SJ: I’ve realized that I want to do it again, that I want to have more plays put on with more actors…that I want to write. I’ve caught the playwright bug.
The final performances of 22 Stories will be on:
Fri, Aug 26, 2011, 7 pm
Sun, Aug 28, 2011, 3:15 pm
*Learn more and buy tickets here!
And look out for Sofia’s work in the future – she’s currently revising a new play about a small-town teenager who impregnates his girlfriend, then runs away to hitchhike with a band of travelling anarchists.