Kicking Off the New Play Festival

During the spring and fall of 2010, hundreds of students in YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program wrote original plays about everything from vampires to gangs to superheroes. Of the over 500 plays in this pool, a reading committee composed of staff, teaching artists, actors and community members narrowed the group to 15. As part of the committee, I enjoyed having unique insight into our students’ creative processes. I was struck by the overall originality and eloquence of our young people, and especially of those we selected to produce.

For this reason, I was incredibly excited to meet our fifteen student playwrights at the New Play Festival Kick-Off Party on Saturday, February 12. Though I had never met most of these students, I felt I already knew them. Somehow reading someone’s play feels like reading the playwright, even when their story is completely imagined.

We played a game at the party that made the connection between the playwrights and their plays even more pronounced. Students were divided into groups by the night of the New Play Festival they will be produced and asked to embody their protagonist, working together to create a tableau. Program Manager Nicole Jost read play descriptions aloud and the audience had to match the play descriptions with their playwrights. The way the students embodied their characters said as much about their own personalities as those of their protagonists.

The first time Nicole called “action!”, the playwrights that will be produced on April 11 sprung into their tableau. Lauren White immediately flopped onto the floor in imitation of her superhero protagonist, Flatworm, and Marco Anderson growled into place as his fearsome feline, Mr. Jinks. Nneamaka Iwobi struck a confident pose as her singing-sensation character Kelly, while Paul McCoyer looked greedily at imaginary currency as Jack in his satirical play Money, Money, Money.

The tableaus for the Tuesday, April 12, and Wednesday, April 13, performances of the New Play Festival were more subtle. Johana Cedillos and Amber Faith Walton exhibited thoughtful creativity by melding their characters’ dark confusion into a combined tableau representing their plays Scarred with Faces and Changing Tides: Judge Me Gently. Taj Vereen stood in composed calm as the not-yet-existent protagonist of his play The Concept of Conception,  while Rasheeda Williams and Saviya Brown moved broadly to display the strength of their characters Morgan and Derrick from A Thin Line Between Her & Us and Taken 4 Granted.

I loved seeing the different creative energies in the room and watching the way the playwrights interacted with each other, their families, and the community members celebrating them. The party was a reminder of what makes YPT unique among theaters in DC.

Yes, we do produce awesome plays. But we also produce awesome students.

The Kick-Off Party was the beginning of a long process of dramaturgy for the playwrights. Click here to learn more about the playwrights and their plays, and don’t forget to celebrate with us at the New Play Festival on April 11, 12, and 13, at 7:30pm, at GALA Hispanic Theatre!

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

History in the Making: Reflections from New Writers Now!

On Monday, February 7, 2011, an unprecedented number of community members from all over the DC metro area filled every available seat in GALA Hispanic Theatre to enjoy New Writers Now! – From Civil War to Civil Rights.

YPT presented original plays that explore the ways our history shapes us today, including I am a Slave by Maret School student Jack Brotman, Mercy, Mercy Me by Bell Multicultural High School student Ellen Hubbard, and Woodlawn, created collaboratively with residents and organizations throughout DC’s Ward 7.

After the performance, the audience was invited to reflect in writing on the plays they had just experienced. The results were insightful, honest, and poignant. Take a look at some of the responses, and feel free to comment below with your own thoughts!

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 The plays made me think about the big, often nasty and almost always glazed over and left unsaid conflicts in DC today.

  • How do newcomers to DC, who want to be part of a community, or part of creating a new “story”, interact with the existing community?
  • How do we get beyond gentrification/provocation, and the inherent conflicts of race and class that people are too ready to glaze over?
  • How do we talk to one another about development and progress without resorting to caricatures or engendering greater distrust and conflict?

Theater’s a good way to air these—thanks for your work.
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My own personal belief is that history should be preserved, but in order for history to last, it must be taught. In Woodlawn, I saw the generational gap where the personal history of the Elders had not been shared with the young people. Apathy can set in, and it corrodes the history. So the responsibility falls on the previous generation to teach the next generation the history and importance of a particular area.
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My father was buried not far from where I lived as a child, but we very rarely went to the site. This was partially due to the fact that we lost him so young, and it was just too painful to live with on a regular basis. I had gone to college and my mother had moved away before I decided to try and go back. I wandered through the rows of tombstones for twenty minutes before finding his. When the people in the play talked about the necessity for a place dedicated to them, a place where they live on, I was thrown back to the near-panic state I reached during the time that I couldn’t find his stone, the fear that, in never visiting the site and revisiting his memory, I might have lost him forever.
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A young audience member responds to the play Woodlawn with a drawing.

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I think about space, place, and meaning as inscribed in the built, or un-built environment. This play was incredible in helping me realize even more the importance of learning the history of those before me who have inscribed meaning in place. And that each person has a voice, and it should be heard.

So thank you, for telling these stories.

A loyal fan and neighbor,
Liz, age 22
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Thank you to everyone who came out to GALA Hispanic Theatre to celebrate our playwrights on Monday. It meant so much to see you all there.

We hope to see you all at the New Play Festival in April. Click here to learn more.

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

So…Should We Build the Good Neighbor?

As I watched the Express Tour Showcase for the fourth time on Saturday night, I was amazed that I could still find something new and exciting to anticipate in the show. Of course I still enjoyed seeing Alex Perez flounce around the stage as a bully in Love, Math, and Martians Don’t Mix, watching Alex Vernon pluck a kimono out of thin air in The Bird of One Thousand Colors, and seeing Dawn Thomas wave her finger in attitude-laden bewilderment as a seventh grader in The Good Neighbor, but in the end, the part of the show I waited for every night was the moment when the audience became part of the performance.

In case you didn’t get a chance to see it, The Good Neighbor is a play produced in collaboration with Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Program, structured as a community meeting to discuss the building of a transitional housing facility in our neighborhood. The actors on stage each represent a character, speaking words inspired by YPT-led workshops at shelters, transitional housing facilities and schools around DC. Once the characters have expressed their perspectives, the meeting facilitator (played by Wendy Nogales), opens the conversation up to the audience. As a result, every performance is different. At one performance, a little girl told Mr. Best (a character who does not want the transitional housing facility to be built), that his argument was irrational, because people are people and they deserve to have a place to live. At another performance, audience members asked a series of very specific questions about how to get into the facility, perhaps believing that such a place was actually being built. At another, a young man shared his own story of growing up homeless with his drug-addicted mother as a child, and the role of a transitional housing facility in his family’s stability now. In the end, every conversation was different, every performance was different, and the number of votes for or against the facility was different. However, at each Showcase performance, the audience voted to build The Good Neighbor.

I am curious to know how the Express Tour is received differently at each stop on its run (through December). Performing the play in front of folks at nursing homes, elementary schools, and community centers, I imagine that people bring forth drastically different points, questions, and observations. Perhaps the vote to build or not to build The Good Neighbor also ends differently. I hope that some audiences are frustrated or angered by the characters and discussions. I hope they keep talking after the performance is over. That’s what a good play does—it gets people talking. Even if they are frustrated by the things characters say, they are thinking. Maybe it’s the voyeur in me, but I love that this play provides a space to include this dissent and anger within the structure of the performance itself. That makes it pretty great in my book.

If you saw the play (and even if you didn’t), I would love to hear your thoughts! What angered you? Inspired you? Which characters did you identify with? Would you build a transitional housing facility in YOUR neighborhood? Leave your comments below to keep the conversation going, or write your own response and we will post it here on the blog! A play is only as good as the conversation that follows, so keep it going!

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

YPTimeMachine: Week Two

As YPT launches our 15th birthday celebration, we’re spending a lot of time reflecting on 1995 – both what was popular at the time (snap bracelets and pog collections, anyone?)  and where we were in our own lives.  Some staff members were embarking on new chapters in their adult lives, while others were still navigating their way through elementary school.  But reading all our 1995 staff bios, I noticed a common thread – an interest in the creative arts, and a drive to succeed in the things we were passionate about.  Raina, our Community Engagement Associate, performed plays for her family and friends and read under her desk in class.  Laurie, our Program Assistant, had a play she wrote produced at a school assembly.  Brigitte, our Development Director, turned in an unassigned book report on Les Misérables in middle school.  Patrick, our Associate Artistic Director, looked forward to a college because it offered new opportunities for theater, and David, our Producing Artistic Director and CEO, was a working actor in New York City – not an easy job!

While I wasn’t lucky enough to have a program as cool as YPT come into my classroom, I was an avid writer in 1995, filling up notebooks with stories inspired by my favorite books at the time.  In second grade, we did have a class called “Writer’s Workshop” where we were instructed to write whatever we wanted, and I looked forward to it every week.  It was during these Writer’s Workshops that I produced the only story with chapters in my class, and learned how to use quotation marks for dialogue.  I was also spellbound by all the school plays (I have memories of Janney Elementary’s production of Oliver! as a theatrical masterpiece) and, inspired, I would put on plays at home, often playing multiple roles.  As I got older the idea of being on stage became less appealing, but I kept writing and remained fascinated with theater, which led me to major in theater in college and, many internships later, land a job with YPT.  I, like so many of us in the arts world, discovered a passion for the arts at an early age, and without exposure to creative opportunities and encouragement from teachers and parents, I probably would not have pursued working in the arts, which has led to some amazing experiences and a job I feel lucky to have.

As part of our look back, we found a huge box of YPT material circa 1995-1997.  Some of the plays are hilariously mid-90s, including a play submitted for consideration for 1996 Express Tour in which Madonna discovers that Dennis Rodman is really a woman, and a play in which Tia and Tamera (presumably from the 90s classic Sister, Sister) go to a party at Puff Daddy’s house.  But many plays have themes that we still see today in student work.  Plays from early Express Tour performances dealt with issues such as forbidden love, violence in the community, AIDS and, on the lighter side, a kid who puts a love note to his secret crush in the wrong locker.  Today, that character would probably text his declaration of love (in 160 characters or less) to the wrong cell phone, but the ideas and the quality of the work has remained the same.  We’ve seen high-waist jeans come and go, we’ve seen the rise and fall of boy bands, we’ve been through several presidents, but the talents of young students and the importance of arts education opportunities remain as important now as they were in 1995.

So come check out our Express Tour Showcase November 3-6!  Maybe in 2025 we’ll be laughing at the dated references as we show up to YPT’s 30th birthday celebration in our flying cars, but right now, it promises to be a great show.   And we’ll have birthday cake.  See you there!

Alison
Development Assistant

Letters from the Audience: New Writers Now!-Outside In

After the October 4New Writers Now! – Outside In staged reading, the audience got a chance to put in their two cents. We asked them to write a letter to a character in one of the plays, invited them to share the letters out loud, then gave those letters to the playwrights. We heard funny, witty, and adorable letters read aloud. Here is a sample…..feel free to respond below with your own letters to Block Man, Moon Man, Timmy the Turtle, or other inspiring characters from YPT plays!

Dear Block Man,

Your courage in the face of harassment was inspiring. I’m a firm believer that no matter what your size you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to. You are a shining example of that. Thank you for reminding me to keep my head up and keep going because in the end it’ll all work out okay.

Dear Turtle,

I loved when you said that the gate was so shiny. It was great.

Dear Mr. Block Man,

I too have felt like an outsider many times in my life. Overcoming prejudices is something you should be proud of. Instead of lashing out or creating more anger in the world, you were able to create peace and help others during your time of need. More people should follow in your footsteps and bring love and joy to the world as opposed to hate.

All the best,

Jayme J

Dear Block Man,

I was most struck by your experience as an outsider—you represented such a simple form, a shape, that in its 4-sides represented so much inequality in the world we live in (not to sound overly dramatic—but its true).

Your daily experiences represented to me, not any specific forms of racism or prejudices but rather how people in the city tend to treat each other (in lesser extremes, or course).

Often, we don’t offer each other help, to catch the bus, buy a sandwich, find the right train- because we are too self-focused on our own days and tasks at hand. It would be great to remember that at times we all feel like blocks, and would do better to think outside the box (or block?) and help each other out.

Thank you,

Liz

Dear Steik,

I understand your hesitation in accepting the blockman into your neighborhood. His form is unfamiliar and strange and unlike your own, though, when you think about it, your love of a feline could also be said to be a bit strange. Four-legged, furry, and rough-tongued, she is also so unlike you in form and mind. But I hope that realizing the non-uniformity, the heterogeneous and often bizarre nature of love will lead you to the acceptance of your perfectly wonderful neighbor, Blockman.

My best,

Maggie

We received some amazing drawings as well!

We can’t wait to see you all at the next YPT performance!

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

YPT Presents Sneak Previews of a New Play about Woodlawn Cemetery and Ward 7

Early in the morning on Saturday, September 11th, 2010, approximately one hundred volunteers, actors, local historians, community members, and YPT staff (not to mention the 36,000 resting below) gathered at the historic Woodlawn Cemetery in honor of the National Day of Service. We listened to speakers from Greater DC Cares, the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association, and to YPT’s very own Producing Artistic Director David Snider, then watched as YPT actors read a teaser from our upcoming play Woodlawn, inspired by the oral histories of community members, many of whom watched intently from the front rows.

Then the “fun” began – volunteers got to work cutting branches, mowing grass, and pulling weeds, beginning to bring life back to the space. I worked alongside students, non-profit employees, and community members, speculating about the history below us as we tackled particularly gruesome branches. Even the seven-year-old grandson of a participant in YPT’s oral history project did his part, walking between volunteers to offer bottles of cold water.

As I headed down the hill to leave for part two of my day, I saw an older woman seated by herself where the crowd had watched the performance just moments ago. She looked calm and satisfied as she surveyed the people before her. I sat down and she began to explain her connection to the space. Her grandparents and aunt were buried at Woodlawn, and though she used to visit frequently, the lack of upkeep made it difficult to continue. She was thrilled that volunteers were caring for the space, and at the same time knew that the weeds would probably return before next year’s Day of Service. Instead of clearing plants, her own efforts to remember and honor her family had turned to recording her family history on paper.

Words are powerful things. For all the clearing of brush, it is ultimately the stories we uncover that matter, and the sharing of these experiences that bring life to the cemetery and meaning to the people who listen. The work volunteers did on this Day of Service was incredibly meaningful, but the true worth of the experience is in the connection people will now have with Woodlawn because they have heard and built their own story there.

This was made clear in the afternoon, when a new audience of people met at Sidney Harman Hall to view a scene from Woodlawn as part of Arts on Foot. They reacted with laughter, shock, and curiosity, clearly intrigued by the stories they heard. When the last (cliffhanger) line was spoken and the lights when dark, there was a brief pause before an eruption of applause. Though most of these people had never set foot at Woodlawn Cemetery, the words spoken by the actors had built a bridge of meaning.

Telling stories is crucial, but having an audience is what gives the stories meaning. Though it is far away, I hope you can join me on February 7th to listen and participate in the conversation that is history, and build your own story about Woodlawn Cemetery.

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

YPT Welcomes Raina Fox as Our New Community Engagement Associate!

Sometimes artists get a bad name: they are disorganized and unreliable. They let their ideas get ahead of their ability to perform. They live in a world of their own.

I am so thrilled to be part of a team of artists who share none of those traits.

As I end my very first week as Community Engagement Associate at the Young Playwrights’ Theater, I am overcome by the energy, intelligence, organization, creativity, and passion of the folks who make it possible for our young playwrights to contribute to and be a part of our creative world.

On Tuesday evening, YPT held its first ever kick-off event, at which actors performed teaser scenes from three student plays. Students, families, board members, supporters, and staff gathered to celebrate and watch as these plays begin to form. We watched as a boy from the moon struggled to understand earth, a young man and his turtle friend confronted their own personal hell (high school), and a couple’s relationship started to deteriorate because of a text message.  The plays were funny, insightful, clever, and entertaining. However, the best part was watching the young playwrights as they saw their characters come to life through the words they had written. Though they seemed a bit embarrassed, they absolutely radiated pride and excitement. I was so happy to approach the essence of YPT by experiencing these plays alongside their young writers and so many members of the wonderful YPT community.

I also experienced the first stage of a Fannie Mae-commissioned play on homelessness in the form of workshops at N Street Village and Martha’s Table. The women of N Street and children of Martha’s table were amazingly eloquent, perceptive, and enthusiastic when speaking about the issue of homelessness. They were not only willing to share their perspectives, but thrilled to be part of the play to come. I too am excited to see where these community perspectives lead the creative process and to have my perspective of homelessness tested along the way.

This week was the perfect introduction to my time at YPT—I was able to see the brainstorming and writing processes, experience the first stage in producing a play, and begin to connect with YPT and the broader community. As I start to develop ways to further engage our community, I know this is rooted in a strong, supportive, passionate group of folks, who, yes, happen to be artists.

Raina
Community Engagement Associate