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Journalist Wins Top Prize at Play Festival

Mark Niu’s “Juche Rules” takes top honors at the 2008 MPW One-Act Play Festival.

Journalist Wins Top Prize at Play Festival

“Juche Rules,” based on journalist Mark Niu’s surreal state-sponsored bus tour of North Korea, was singled out April 9 as the best play among four finalists at the USC College’s
Master of Professional Writing (MPW) Program 2008 One-Act Play Festival.

Judges hailed “Juche Rules” as a fresh story that needed to be told.

The play “presented a world I was not familiar with,” said judge Simon Levy, an award-winning playwright and resident director of L.A.’s Fountain Theatre.

Levy, along with festival judges Lawrence Harbison, an editor and publisher at Smith and Kraus and formerly at Samuel French, and Wenzel Jones, a Backstage West critic and theatre commentator, discussed their selection on stage after the performances.

Harbison told the crowd of about 250 that he had spoken at a USC playwriting class earlier and was asked, “What makes a good play?”

“A story that cries out to be told,” replied Harbison, who added that the phrase describes “Juche Rules.”

Niu, a second-year screenwriting and playwriting student, spent more than a decade as a TV anchor and reporter covering Asia. His work has appeared on Fox, PBS and the National Geographic channel.

“This was the highlight of my time in the MPW program,” said Niu after seeing his first staged play. “I sat in on casting and worked with the director. You have a better idea of what they are thinking and the way they are interpreting your lines. And to see it performed live before an audience is incredible.”

In “Juche Rules,” two Western journalists videotape state secrets and learn about morality from an unlikely source, a tour guide who seems to blindly follow his nation’s propaganda.

Though the journalists initially scoff at the tour guide’s allegiance to “Dear Leader,” they learn to admire his adherence to independent thought — a principle of Juche — even in a place seemingly void of Western freedoms.

“I did not intend to become a playwright,” Niu said. “The MPW program requires that you take courses in a number of different writing disciplines. So it turns out I am extremely grateful that I was essentially forced to take a playwriting class, and as a result, discover a new form of writing I never imagined I could do.”

Juche is a state-mandated philosophy in North Korea created by the country’s former leader, the late Kim Il-Sung. The code states that people must have independence in thought and politics, self-sufficiency in economics and self-reliance in defense.

The MPW program emphasizes the importance of having students’ plays produced by professional directors and actors.

“Our MPW students are encouraged to explore writing from various perspectives — prose, poetry and playwriting, to name a few,” USC College Dean Howard Gillman said at a dinner before the performance. “This gives students a breadth of understanding which has served our alumni well in their careers as professional writers.”

This year’s productions, complete with memorized lines, full costumes and minimalist sets, featured such actors as Roy Vongtama (“24,” “The Bucket List”), AnnaLisa Erickson of L.A.’s award-winning Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble and Robert DiTillio (“NYPD Blue,” “Babylon 5”).

Directors included Herman Poppe, who has acted in and directed more than 200 plays at First Stage Hollywood, and Susan Lee, the director of “Juche Rules,” who is now in post-production on her first feature film, “Cinderella Drives a Pick-Up.”

The dinner before Wednesday’s performance was hosted by Gillman, along with the festival’s executive producer Lee Wochner, for the College’s 1880 Society and Associates members.

Attendees included judge Harbinson, College Chairman Associates Deena and Mitchell Lew, Elizabeth and Robert Plumleigh and playwright Connie Yoshimura.

The 1880 Society was established to provide a community for people who believe in the mission and goals of USC College. Much like the USC Associates Program, the 1880 Society encourages members to support the programs and departments to which they feel most connected.

For more information on 1880 Society membership, contact Sarah Trudell-McCoy at (213) 740-5926 or by e-mail at trudell@college.usc.edu.

For more information about supporting the College by establishing a membership in the USC Associates, contact Adam Bart, executive director of USC Associates at (213) 740-8277 or by e-mail at uscassoc@usc.edu.