Q&A With Playwright and Jerome Fellow Sofya Levitsky-Weitz

We recently caught up with Sofya Levitsky-Weitz ’12, an alumna of LMU who majored in Theatre Arts and minored in Jewish Studies. She was awarded the prestigious Jerome Fellowship, which provides funds and services to aid emerging American playwrights in the development of their craft. Sofya has already written many plays including this party sucks and Intuitive Men. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program in Writing for the Screen & Stage and is a member of EST/Youngblood. Learn more about LMU’s influence on Sofya’s work, her post-grad artistic endeavors, and advice for LMU students in the Q&A below.

Q. How did your time at LMU influence or prepare you for a career in playwriting? Do you draw from your background in Jewish Studies?

My time at LMU prepared me so much for my career as an artist and a thinker. As a theatre major, I got the opportunity to work on all aspects of theatre, and that department really taught me to put myself out there. It’s a small program, and I always felt that you got as much as you put into it, so I got the chance to not only write but direct, act, design, and work on many many productions on all sides of things. On the other side, my academic classes in the Honors Program and through my minor broadened my mind to all of the topics I’ve been interested in – literature, theology, ethics, history, and everything else. All of that goes into creative writing and it’s all so important. A liberal arts career is – in my opinion – so much more valuable than a BFA program for what I’m interested in because it allows you to see the world more fully, and all of that goes into writing and art. Also – can’t forget the extracurricular activities! I was really involved at LMU as President of Laser Squad Bravo, LMU’s official improv team, my senior year and as a member all four years. This certainly contributed to my playwriting career. Improv is such great training. I was also Editor-in-Chief for the honors interdisciplinary journal, Attic Salt, for all four years, which was a huge and fun responsibility. I directed for the student-run theatre Del Rey Players, and – oh man – so much more. Jewish Studies certainly plays into my writing – as well as my Judaism in general. Lately I’ve been exploring that side of my identity more in my writing, particularly as it pertains to family and spirituality.

Q. What has your path been since you graduated from LMU and what have been some of the highlights?

After I graduated, I spent the year traveling, applying to graduate school, and starting a theatre company with some other LMU theatre alumni in Hollywood. We had a successful season of DIY, new, weird theatre and then I found out in the spring that I got into Northwestern University’s MFA program in Writing for the Screen & Stage. So that fall, I moved to Chicago and had the time of my life. It was a two-year program and I met some of my best friends and collaborators, had amazing classes, challenged myself in my writing, worked on television and film scripts (and made some short films!) with some incredible mentors, and survived the worst two winters in recorded history! After that, I moved to New York and threw myself in the theatre scene there. I’ve worked on a ton of theatre and film since then, and made some amazing lifelong friends. Also – I see a lot of theatre, which is so exciting in and of itself in New York. Working on weird and bold shows with my friends has been a continual highlight. Also getting into Youngblood, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s under 30 writing collective, was definitely a big moment. I really thrive in a community. And getting two amazing kittens? Does that count?

Q. Can you describe the most recent play you worked on?

I just spent two weeks at UCF as the inaugural playwright for their new series Pegasus Playlab, where they bring emerging playwrights with experimental new work to develop their plays with a team of student actors and designers and faculty mentors. My play Intuitive Men was chosen, and it was such a joy to work on the play with this eager, smart, and creative community for two whole weeks – exploring the play and its function, as well as mostly staging it and getting a design set up. The play takes place over the course of a 60 minute yoga class where two men communicate telepathically. We did it in New York in the fall, but that process was quick and dirty (and wonderful!), so to take some time to really breathe with it, have conversations, and set the yoga “score” was totally amazing. I hope LMU (and other universities) consider doing a program like this. I would’ve loved to work with new plays and playwrights as an undergrad – it’s so, so exciting and unique. I’m still on a creative high from it!

Q. What is the playwriting/creative process like for you?

It really depends and has differed with every project I’ve worked on. I would say, lately, there’s something I’m raging about or trying to process or really wanting to talk about, and that sort of starts to develop into characters that start talking to me, won’t leave me alone, and become clearer and clearer as I sit down to write (or write in my head until I get to somewhere where I can write it down). I actually handwrite my plays first, and I don’t write in order, and I sort of write when things come to me, so sometimes it’s in the margins. Then – that process of typing up/ordering/organizing what I’ve handwritten is super important. And then – if I’m lucky or can work it out – I get to hear it out loud, with friends, with my writers group, with actors in a living room or rehearsal room – and then the next step is getting an audience with it or getting it in workshop. I think what draws me to playwriting over any other writing medium is how collaborative it is – we’re all just looking to get into those rooms and work and play and discover.

Q. What was the application process like for the Jerome Fellowship?

The Jerome application required a full length play submission, a personal statement, and two letters of recommendation, which is pretty standard.  I thought there would be an interview, but there wasn’t! I was really thrilled when I found out I was a finalist, and even more excited when I heard I’d received it. In my industry, you have to apply to a lot of stuff and I try to work equally hard on all of my applications, though some speak to me more than others. I really responded to what the Jerome and The Playwrights’ Center expressed about their institution and this particular opportunity. The play I submitted is a new one, very personal and brutal, called this party sucks, and what really made me happy is how much they have responded to it. It feels good!

Q. How does it feel to be the recipient of the same fellowship that August Wilson received early in his career?

It’s really exciting to be recognized at this institutional level and to know I’ll be supported as well as given space to create work – and space in my own brain to truly feel like an artist, which I believe is getting increasingly hard in our current time and economy. I think part of taking this pursuit seriously as a career is both recognizing the amazing talents of those that came before us (and who are currently working in the arts!) while also realizing that you can access these rooms, these people, these conversations, if you keep doing the work, meeting people, putting yourself out there, and believing in yourself. I truly believe with that focus and openness, you can reach the goals you want – which for me, is really about my work being able to access, affect, and challenge people – to make them feel seen and heard.

Q. What are you most looking forward to accomplishing over the next year?

I am thrilled to have time and space to work on my brand new messy plays as well as create new ones! I can be pretty prolific if given the space, so I’m excited to see what the time will bring, particularly with support from the Playwrights’ Center, who put aside specific development funds for me so we can host readings and workshops of plays. I get to set my own goals with them, which I love, and I’m going to aim high! On the other side of things, I’m really so grateful to get the opportunity to fully see myself as an artist and take myself seriously with full dedication and energy. It’s hard, I believe particularly as a woman artist, to feel that sort of legitimacy, and to have this kind of institutional support that also includes introducing us to theatre professionals around the country will be life-changing to my career both from an internal and external perspective.

Q. Are you working on anything currently? 

Youngblood (the writing collective I’m part of) hosts a reading series for all of us in the spring. It’s a low-stakes opportunity for us to bring in something extremely new and try it out with actors with a few hours of rehearsal. I’m working on a brand new play called Cannabis Passover, which is very out of my comfort zone for a lot of reasons. It’s a ten person cast and takes place with mostly everyone on stage. I’m trying to get into some heavy topics while keeping it super funny. It’s already 130 pages and not done yet! It’s crazy! I’m excited to work with a new director on it and wrote half the parts for my good friends, so I think no matter what happens, it’s gonna be a blast to work on.

Q. Do you have any advice for young artists soon to graduate college?

Stay at it! Be brave! Be weird! Keep doing it, keep believing in yourself, even when it seems impossible or like it’s never gonna happen. Find joy in the making, find people who share the same love of art that you do, make art with those people, support those people and their art, find the things that make you happy or else you’ll get so caught up in the suffering that you won’t make. Destroy the myth of the suffering artist and the myth of the male genius! Have life experiences, work hard, travel, go out of your comfort zone but be kind to yourself. Cultivate taste and experience all sorts of art – things you don’t agree with, things that make you afraid. Make work that scares you and pleases you! Just keep making! That’s a sort of big one – don’t wait around for things to happen. You gotta keep putting yourself out there. No one else will do it for you and I believe in you! The world needs you, especially now!

Q. Are there any other BCLA (liberal arts) courses that had an impact on you?

Oh wow – so many. I was a member of the Honors Program, and I still think about many of those classes – they were so intimate, dynamic, and challenging. On the Sublime with Robin Miskolcze was my first writing class in college and that blew me away. Creative Writing for Non-Majors with Sarah Maclay (and just Sarah Maclay in general) was actually my first experience with playwriting, and Sarah was the first person to tell me that I should consider pursuing it professionally. I thought I’d be terrible at it! I also loved my time as a Jewish Studies minor, and I’m definitely biased, but what Holli Levitsky has brought to LMU’s campus is unrivaled – all the trips abroad opened my eyes to so many experiences that have affected my life and writing.