By JANICE C. SIMPSON
Summer Shorts, the annual festival of new American short plays, has lined up a murderers' row of playwrights for its fifth season. On deck are marquee names like Christopher Durang, Tina Howe, and Neil LaBute, and they're sharing a bill with someone who might grace marquees in the future: Ruby Rae Spiegel, who turns 18 exactly a week after the festival begins at 59E59 on Aug. 4.
Spiegel is the youngest writer the festival has ever produced, but when John McCormack, Summer Shorts' production manager, read her sly play Carrie & Francine, he wasn't thinking about her age. "Ruby's play felt different from anything else we read," he says. "I laughed. But there's something deeper there too. For me, a middle aged guy, it felt very much like the world of 13-year-olds today."
Carrie & Francine centers on two best friends who are getting ready to attend a classmate's bar mitzvah. The girls are smart but smutty-mouthed, and they talk as knowingly about J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as they do about the TV show Gossip Girl.. However, there's more to them than swagger. Tweens trapped in the netherworld between childhood and adolescence, they worry about how cool they are, if they're thin enough, and whether they know the right way to kiss the boys they like.
Laura Barnett, Carrie & Francine director, also teaches at Saint Ann's, the private school in Brooklyn where Spiegel graduated in June, and she discovered the play while putting together the school's annual play festival. "I simply fell in love with it," she recalls. "It just came off the page to me."
Although she had never before recommended a student's work, Barnett asked Spiegel if she could send Carrie & Francine to some artists she knew, including McCormack.
While this is Spiegel's first professionally-produced play, she's no newcomer to the theatre. Her mother is a professor of performance studies, and Spiegel grew up seeing theatre and performance art. She wrote her first play in 7th grade, and over the years, she has honed her craft with residencies at the Iowa Young Writers' Studio and the New England Young Writers' Conference at Bread Loaf. She plans to continue working in the theatre when she enrolls at Yale this fall.
As Spiegel develops her voice, there's no predicting how her writing will evolve, but for now, she's passionate about writing plays that take on social issues. Carrie & Francine for instance, grew out of her interest in websites that offer support to young anorexics.
"I'm not really interested in writing family drama plays," says the budding writer. "It's very exciting to me to have people debate my work because: Why else write?"
Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me