From the way Sam Friskey (C'20) speaks, it’s clear she’s a writer. She is eloquent; her sentences are smooth and rhythmic and her word choices are crisp and precise. She speaks slowly, carefully, with thoughtful pauses replacing the “um”s typically sprinkled throughout colloquial dialogue. I’m not surprised when she tells me she’s an English major. But I am awed when she tells me that she’s an award–winning playwright.
It all started freshman year. Sam received an email about the One Acts Festival at Penn, an annual festival of short plays written and performed by students. She says she was always an “obnoxious theatre kid,” acting throughout all of high school, and writing poetry and fiction on the side, but she admits that “it never really crossed my mind that people actually wrote plays.” Sam forgot about the One Acts Festival until the day before submissions were due. That night, fueled by a burst of spontaneity and creativity, she stayed up late and wrote a short play, her first one ever, called Disorganized Religion. Sam modestly jokes that the script was “very awful,” a claim that seems incongruous with what happened next: the play was selected for performance. This was an awakening for Sam.
“The act of watching [that play] be performed in February when the One Acts Festival went up…I [became] absolutely addicted to the feeling of other people working with, and interpreting, and adapting [my] work from a piece of paper into real life,” she says. “I really think that’s why theatre is one of the coolest mediums out there: you can write a play on your own as a single person, but it requires so much collaboration, and teamwork, and the artistic input of other individuals to actually make it into this living, breathing, complete thing.”
The One Acts Festival was just the start of Sam’s theatrical journey at Penn. Over the course of her four years, Sam continued to participate in the quintessential theatre activities she loved back in high school; she acted in and did tech for a handful of productions, seamlessly jumping between multiple theatre groups—such as iNtuitons Experimental Theatre Company, Front Row Theatre Company, and Stimulus Children’s Theatre Company. But the One Acts Festival served as a catalyst for Sam to make her unexpected—yet seemingly effortless—transition from actor to actor and playwright.
Sam went on to write scripts for more One Acts Festivals and multiple other festivals during her time at Penn. However, arguably the most climactic accomplishments of Sam’s college playwriting career happened in her last two years at Penn. In her junior year, Sam won the 2018–2019 Penn Plays Fellowship for her one–act play Rabbit. The play was then workshopped—with attention from playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, director David O'Connor, and The Kelly Writers House—and perfected for a reading at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
But the success of Rabbit transcended the accolades of Penn; this past year, Sam’s brainchild was nationally recognized for its genius. Sam entered the play in The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival of 2020. She became a regional finalist, ascended to the national pool, and then, competing against students from across the country, won the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play.
Sam is rightfully proud of her tremendous accomplishments, listing them with cheerful self–assuredness. But she's incredibly humble, attributing her growth to the help of others, specifically the Theatre Arts department at Penn. “They have shaped me as a playwright and as a theatre maker, and a scholar of theatre…I could probably rattle off a thousand different experiences where the theatre faculty have proven crucial to me,” she says. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a playwright when I came to Penn, and now [it’s] one of my sole life goals, so that’s a pretty evolutionary, radical change.”
Penn didn’t just introduce Sam to playwriting, though; it also led her to another unexpected passion: environmentalism.
Before freshman year, Sam accidentally applied to the pre–orientation program PennGreen instead of PennArts. “My parents didn’t recycle, the Earth was rarely talked about in my household,” she laughs, “And I show up and it’s a week of going outside...hiking...talking about the Beekeeping Club…” The next thing Sam knew, she was a staunch environmentalist.
During her four years at Penn, Sam became deeply involved in Penn’s environmental activism scene. She was a member of Epsilon Eta, Penn’s professional environmental fraternity, an intern at the office of Penn Sustainability, an RA of Eco House—the environmental scene’s residential program at Harnwell College House—and a UN Millennium Fellow at Penn.
How does Sam’s love for Mother Earth connect to her love for theatre, you may ask? Well, Sam strongly believes that “theatre [is] not only a means of entertainment but [is] a means of social change.” It’s fitting, therefore, that she married her two loves in a full length play for her Creative Writing thesis, crafting a story about a woman who believes the effects of climate change present themselves to her as a second coming of the ten plagues of Exodus.
When reflecting on the last four years, Sam is amazed by how radically her Penn experience shifted her life’s trajectory. “It’s kind of crazy how different my life is because I followed a few inklings of passion I didn’t know I had when I was 18 years old.”
What’s next for Sam? Pandemic permitting, she’ll be moving to Miami in August for an analyst position. She hopes to eventually head back to school and receive an MFA in playwriting, perhaps one day becoming a professor while writing and producing her own plays on the side. But her professional playwriting career is on hold for now, especially because of the devastation of COVID–19.
“We don’t know when theatre is coming back and when it does come back what it will look like…there’s probably going to be a backlog of new work that’s been waiting because no one is having their plays put up right now,” she says. But Sam continues to brainstorm stories as well as creative ways to perform them in quarantine. “‘What is the theatre that we’re going to make in the meantime?’ [has been] a huge question that I’ve been thinking about.”
Despite the uncertainty of the present, Sam is hopeful about her future. “I mean, dream goal, dream goal, dream goal: Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award Winning Playwright,” Sam laughs, “You gotta aim high.” I laugh with her, but that doesn’t seem too far out of her reach.