Inside the Hotchner Festival: Zachary Stern

Aspiring playwrights debut new works Sept. 24, 25

From left: Dramaturg Liza Birkenmeier (AB '08), playwright Zachary Stern and director Pannill Camp at rehearsals in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

“What’s the worst that could happen?”
– From “Kent Styles”

Kent Styles owes money to bad people. Fresh out of prison, he presents his wary aunt and affable uncle ­with an impossible choice. To settle Kent’s debts, will they finally remove his cousin from expensive life support?

In his new play, “Kent Styles,” Zachary Stern explores questions of family, trust and the ghosts we can’t escape. This weekend, the play will receive its world-premiere staged reading at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the annual A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival.

In this Q&A, Stern, a junior in Arts & Sciences, discusses “Kent Styles,” the writing process and the deliciousness of baked goods.

What’s your background in drama? What do you find most rewarding about it? What’s most challenging?

Before coming to WashU, my experience in theater was limited to a few low-budget plays at summer camp and a long-ago-deleted YouTube channel from 5th grade. Still, since I was a little kid, I’ve loved storytelling and performance, and playwriting has just become a new medium to do that.

I feel so lucky to have taken playwriting classes with Carter Lewis, and to have been chosen for the Hotch festival. I’ve learned so much about writing in this last year and have been exposed to the world of play production in a way I never would have otherwise. I’m definitely an insecure writer, so the times during our read-throughs when I hear something I wrote work — whether it be a laugh or a more dramatic moment — is really rewarding. Revising the parts of the play that don’t work as well has been challenging, but thankfully I have a really great system of support that has made that process much easier.

The cast and crew for “Kent Styles” at a read-through in the PAD’s Carson Room. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Tell us about ‘Kent Styles.’ What’s the story of the play?

For the last six years, Liam Roberts has lived in a coma. And for the last six years, his parents, Liz and Fred, have lived happily with the delusion that he might one day wake up. However, that changes when their estranged nephew Kent returns from prison in desperate need of $75,000. The only way they could afford to give it to him is by pulling the plug on Liam. (I promise it’s funnier than it sounds).

“Kent Styles” is a play about confronting the truths we let ourselves believe. It’s about trust, change, self-doubt, and pecan biscuits so delicious you just have to try one. The character Kent Styles, a self-loathing sweet-talker, was born from an in-class character exercise, and slowly, the world and characters that surrounded him began to build in my mind. The play has some ethical questions for the audience to consider, but more than anything, I just hope they enjoy their time with those characters.

What have rehearsals been like? Have you been able to meet in person, or have rehearsals been conducted via Zoom? 

Rehearsals have been such a fun and unique experience. We’ve been fortunate to be able to meet in person, which after a year of nothing but virtual faces has been very nice. [Dramaturg] Liza Birkenmeier and [director] Pannill Camp are so smart and insightful, and I am incredibly grateful to have them as mentors and collaborators. Whether it has been asking questions that push the play forward in new and interesting ways, or holding my hand through an unfamiliar process, they have been so amazing to work with.

Writing is very personal for me, so I was definitely anxious the first time a room of relative strangers read through my unfinished script. However, I quickly realized just how invaluable that experience would be. The actors have been great at bringing their lines to life, and every time I hear the play read aloud, I find new things to think about that I would have never seen just from rereading the script on my computer. 

(From left) Megan Gooden, Zachary Stern and J. Myles Hesse. (Photo courtesy of the Performing Arts Department)

About the Hotchner Festival

The A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, with Megan Gooden’s “Front Porch Steps,” directed by visiting artist Jacqueline Thompson.

The festival will continue at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, with Stern’s “Kent Styles,” directed by Pannill Camp, associate professor and chair of the PAD. The festival will conclude at 7 p.m. that evening with J. Myles Hesse’s “Decadents Gone Wilde,” directed by Annamaria Pileggi, professor of practice in drama.

Sponsored by the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, the festival is named for alumnus A.E. Hotchner, who famously bested Tennessee Williams in a campus playwriting competition. The festival is coordinated by Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama and director of undergraduate studies in drama. Guest dramaturg is Liza Birkenmeier AB ’08, a recent playwright-in-residence at New York talent hub Ars Nova.

All readings will take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in Mallinckrodt Center. Performances are free and open to the public. For more information about the production, call 314-935-5858, visit or follow the department on Facebook and Twitter. View information about campus COVID-19 policies here.

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