UNT student wins international playwriting award

Jacob Sampson
University of North Texas senior Jacob Sampson won the Václav Havel Library Foundation Award and DAMU Contest for the US Students of Drama and Performance Studies. Photo by Ahna Hubnik.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016 - 15:56

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- University of North Texas senior Jacob Sampson has won one of the most prestigious playwriting awards for students – the Václav Havel Library Foundation Award and DAMU Contest for the U.S. Students of Drama and Performance Studies.

Sampson will travel to the Czech Republic in November for a two-week residency in which his play The Essay will be read by the theatre faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) in Prague; attend classes at different DAMU departments; and visit Prague theaters.

Sampson was thrilled when he received the email saying he won.

"I'm still in shock," he said. "I had to have people read it to me because I didn't think I was reading it correctly."

For the contest, Sampson wrote a play with a theme inspired by the works of Havel, a well-known playwright, human rights activist and former president of the Czech Republic.

The contest rules required applicants to make use of "PTYDEPE," an artificial language Havel created in his 1965 play The Memorandum. In Havel's play, the lead character works at a company in which employees have to learn to read and converse in the PTYDEPE language to survive.

In Sampson's play, the protagonist faces a similar crisis – but the setting and characters are vastly different. Sampson has set his play in an American boarding school, which has recently hired a new headmaster who requires the use of PTYDEPE.

Andy Harris, professor of theatre history, play analysis and playwriting, encouraged Sampson to enter the contest. Sampson didn't have an idea about what he would write until he got a stroke of inspiration.

"After endless nights in the library, I wrote my full-length play," he said. "I couldn't stop writing this one. I went through 130 pages."

Harris said the foundation wanted a play that would extend the political, social and humanistic legacy of Havel's work.

"The Memorandum deals with how language can be used not to communicate, but to disrupt and subjugate humanity," Harris said. "Jake's in-class work led me to believe he had the ability and the breadth of imagination to extend the Havel legacy in an original and compelling way."

Sampson has been interested in theatre since high school, but he didn't feel confident in his playwriting abilities until he started taking Harris' classes and received positive feedback from Harris and his classmates.

Sampson is majoring in media arts with a minor in theatre, and he would like to pursue a career as a TV comedy writer.

Harris said that Sampson should be able to make it as a professional writer because he has discovered how to work creatively and use his talent in an established form that is particularly important in dramatic writing.

"It is a major step in one's life to know you have found your way, to find a calling and a direction," he said. "Although Jake clearly knew what he wanted, now he knows an international panel of experts supports his dream."

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