Stephen Gutierrez, center, sits in on early rehearsal of “Exoneration” with actors Joe Mason ’11, from left, and junior Ted Gould. (Photo: Diane Daniel)
Stephen Gutierrez’ fiction has garnered both an American Book and Nilon Excellence in Minority Fiction award – putting the Cal State East Bay English professor in what should be a cushy spot.
Instead of sitting back and focusing on creating fiction as he has done since childhood, Gutierrez has added “playwright” to his vitae.
His sixth, and latest play, “Exoneration,” a quick, 15-minute exchange between a market manager and a young clerk, will make its world premier on the Cal State East Bay stage Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 13.
"Play writing is risky business for a prose writer,” said Gutierrez.
It means crafting even tighter dialogue than appears in his previous works, and, perhaps even more frightening, relinquishing control to actors and directors who can have an entirely new perspective.
“The director sees, the playwright hears,” explained Gutierrez.
“The words are springboards," he said. "Sometimes the actors and directors have ideas that I would never have thought of.”
Gutierrez remembers the first time one of his plays was performed. Sitting next to him in the theater, his wife said he recited every line of dialogue in unison with the actors.
This time Gutierrez is in a more comfortable position. He and A. Fajilian, assistant professor of theatre and dance and production director, have discussed the play, and based on input from a student actor, Gutierrez has already tweaked the script to enhance the realism.
Much like nurturing a child, Gutierrez will attend rehearsals, share his intentions when appropriate, and watch his words blossom.
Gutierrez said he feels like he’s been writing all his life. He laughs when he remembers fourth grade friends performing a rudimentary play he’d crafted, a middle school writing award, and his first serious pieces as an undergraduate at Chico State, and while earning his MFA at Cornell University.
He now directs the CSUEB creative writing program and is being recognized as the 2010-2011 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor, the university’s highest honor for teaching.
After years of creating short stories, such as those in his acclaimed “Live from Fresno y Los,” the professor plunged into serious playwriting in 2004.
“I attend a lot of plays, and I’d been reading a slew of plays for a drama course I was going to teach. My brain was saturated with this form. I sat down one night, and out came a play,” said Gutierrez, who had the thrill of seeing that comedy-tragedy, “A Chicano Experience,” performed at Chabot College.
Since then, his one-act play “Game Day” has taken first in The Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition in New York and was produced in Buffalo in March 2011, and other creations have been performed at Bay Area theaters.
That’s not to say that Gutierrez would give up fiction; he’s just augmenting his repertoire.
“I like the fire of the theater. Certain ideas lend themselves to the dramatic form,” he said.
Director Fajilan became acquainted with Gutierrez’ short stories at a fiction reading, then inquired about his plays. She selected “Exoneration” because of the strong flow of nuances, because it challenges the actors to be on their game, and because of a nice ending twist. She also liked the way men of color negotiate their way through compromise and the rare access her students have to the playwright.
“Exoneration” will be one of several original short pieces by emerging playwrights and CSUEB students presented under the title “Secrets EXposed.” All look at the deep secrets and curiosities we typically hide from the world.
Performances for "Secrets EXposed" will begin at 8 p.m. in the Studio Theatre, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward. All tickets for opening night, Aug. 4, will be $4. Tickets for all other performances will range from $4 to $12. Reserved tickets online or by calling (510) 885-3118.