Brian Polak, a third-year graduate student pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing, is well on his way to becoming one of the United States’ most acclaimed young playwrights.
Polak was recently recognized for his written plays by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The aspiring writer entered two of his works — a full-length play and a short play — in the 2014 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The festival, which will take place April 14-19 in D.C., is a national program involving 18,000 students from more than 600 academic institutions.
Polak’s full-length play, Henry and the Hippocampus, has already been awarded the festival’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award for an outstanding student-written script exploring the experience of living with disability.
The play, originally inspired by a National Public Radio story about a man who spent the last 50 years of his life unable to create new memories, tells the story of a man named Henry who has a similar affliction. The story follows the journey that Henry, his wife and his doctor take to try and rebuild his ability to form memories.
Polak said that writing the play was challenging due to Henry’s neurological state.
“When we watch plays or movies, we like to watch a character kind of go on a journey, change and become a different person,” Polak said. “But here we have this character who medically cannot do that.”
When Polak attends the festival in April, in addition to accepting his award, he will have the opportunity to see an excerpt of Henry and the Hippocampus performed.
Polak’s short play War Profits will also be performed at the festival. War Profits was loosely inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, and follows two U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007 who become disillusioned with the war they agreed to fight and decide to go AWOL.
“One of the themes that I’m exploring in several of my plays right now is my relationship to my country,” Polak said. “War isn’t what we see in the news every day. It’s much more complicated … so I decided to create these characters who, once the dirtiness and the scariness and the messiness was revealed to them, they were like, ‘I don’t like this, I can’t do this anymore.’”
Polak’s success as a playwright stemmed from his foray into theater shortly after receiving his B.A. in philosophy from Marymount University. When he was working full-time, Polak started to get involved in acting classes, improvisational comedy and traditional theater on the side.
“I’m not actually very good at acting,” Polak said. “It became my creative outlet, but I never felt comfortable doing it because it never felt right; something felt amiss.”
Once he realized this, Polak started searching for alternative creative outlets and he soon found himself writing.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said. “I just knew that I was doing plays as an actor, so why not try to write them?”
While still in the early stages of pursuing a writing career, Polak met his future wife who encouraged him to take writing more seriously.
“[My wife] was a writer, and all her friends were writers, and they were like serious, dedicated writers,” Polak said. “I learned [from her] what it really meant to be a writer … It’s a serious art form.”
Several years later, after Polak had spent time developing his craft, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after the move, Polak wanted to study playwriting in a formal academic setting.
“I never had anything I wanted to study before,” he said. “It took me many years to realize that there is this thing that I care about and I love, and it’s playwriting.”
During his time at USC, Polak has been free of the many distractions that would otherwise take him away from what he loves best: writing.
“[Being at USC] has helped me focus my attention on my writing in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do as the writer I was before I came to grad school, where I was writing in the morning and then going to work,” Polak said.
In addition to the time he has to work on his own writing, Polak says he also has time to engage with professors and other students who can offer him feedback and additional readings to fuel his growth as a writer.
“Writing gives me this closeness to the world,” Polak said. “My hope is that when I graduate I’ll be able to start living a life in the theater and presenting these plays publicly for an audience, with the hope that the audience will feel that same closeness to the world that I’m feeling writing.”
USC audiences can hear a reading of Henry and the Hippocampus presented at McClintock Theatre as part of the School of Dramatic Arts New Works Festival on May 28-31.