“Write what you know” took on a new meaning for dramatic arts graduate student Hank Willenbrink when the death of a former lover inspired him to write an award-winning theater production.

“We grew apart during high school, and after undergraduate school I got back in touch with her,” Willenbrink said. “She died during childbirth. I was left with feelings of loss, wondering what it’s like [for her child] to grow up without a mom.”

He began work on his award-winning play, called 18, in the fall of 2005. The playwright brought his finished work to the 39th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival at Southern Utah University last month and received $1,000 and the John Cauble Short Play Award – recognizing outstanding productions in the name of a UCLA emeritus professor. The festival is held in eight regions nationwide between January and March, and encourages an atmosphere where university and college-level students feel comfortable showcasing their theater work.

To win the prize, Willenbrink said he went to the festival with script in hand, and was assigned a director to oversee the play’s production.

“It’s great to be recognized for something I’ve spent two years on,” Willenbrink said. “The award really is recognition of my writing and recognition of the hard work of actors and directors.”

Since childhood, Willenbrink said his life has been intertwined with theater; his father is a theater professor at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. While in high school, he began to write plays, and went on to receive a degree in theater at The University of Toledo.

He is now a dramatic arts teaching assistant at UCSB, and said he hopes to pursue a career in playwriting.

Willenbrink has previously received the UCSB Corwin Award for his work titled Antarctica, and an honorable mention for his short play Talking Heads during the 2005 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. He was also a national finalist during his junior year of undergraduate study.

Willenbrink said the best part of winning the award, however, was intangible.

“Getting to tell your parents you won a big award felt great, even better was calling my dad and hearing him elated over the phone,” Willenbrink said.