Dakota Wenberg is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. She’s thinking she’ll either be a playwright or an astronaut (or maybe both), but she knows she still has a few years to decide.
Dakota is an eighth grade student at Swanson Middle School, and one of the fifteen talented young writers who will be featured in YPT’s 2011 New Play Festival.
I was thrilled when YPT’s Program Manager Nicole Jost invited me to serve as Dakota’s dramaturge and help her revise and develop her play for production. I remembered reading Dakota’s play, A Jewel of a Date, when I participated in YPT’s New Play Festival Reading Committee in January. Each Reading Committee member was responsible for reading and commenting on dozens of student-written plays from YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program, but Dakota’s play stood out for me. I was so impressed by her imaginative characters and her quick, witty dialogue. I remember sitting in my kitchen laughing, reading Dakota’s opening monologue out loud to my husband, and telling him, “YPT has to produce this play.”
A Jewel of a Date is an unconventional superhero story. The play’s protagonist is Superman’s daughter, Supergirl (also known as Liz). Throughout the play, Liz struggles to balance her life as a teenage girl navigating the new and uncertain territories of dating and high school, with her life as a tough, crime-fighting superhero. As Liz says in her opening monologue, “Girl stuff is hard, superhero stuff is super. So girl superhero stuff is SUPER HARD.” The play is often hilarious, sometimes poignant and always thoroughly entertaining.
I loved working with Dakota to develop her story. Dakota is a busy student. Last month, she was the stage manager for her school’s production of Beauty and Beast. She has swim practice every Tuesday. She sings in an after-school chorus at school and a youth choir at her church. But she still managed to come to each of our dramaturgy meetings completely prepared (with a laptop, multiple copies of her play and all of her YPT paperwork completed and signed) and excited to engage in an enthusiastic, focused dialogue about her play.
Dakota turned in the final draft of her play last week. Over the next month, she will have several opportunities to sit in on New Play Festival rehearsals and give the director and actors feedback as they bring her words to life. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks.
Last week, YPT kicked off what is always one of the most fun and exciting parts of our season: the In-School Playwriting Program. I was fortunate enough to not only teach one of the first workshops, but also to observe many others throughout DC.
The first week of classes is the beginning of an exciting twelve-week experience during which students from grades 4-11 are taken through the process of writing a play. Once a week, students meet with their teaching artist to learn about characters, conflict, format, dialogue and other aspects of playwriting. As the weeks progress, the students build toward writing their own play, which will be performed for them by professional actors in the final workshop. The best of these completed plays are chosen by YPT to be performed at GALA Hispanic Theatre in the spring.
Students begin the first workshop by brainstorming what a play is. At Plummer Elementary School, one student said, “A play is telling a story on-stage!” At Bancroft Elementary School, another student added that a play is “a way to express yourself and your emotions.” After offering their ideas, the students watch professional actors perform a short play created by YPT. The play ends at a climactic moment, at which point students are called on to create their own endings to the play. Ideas the students called out involved science labs, light sabers, the FBI, severed fingers, secret lairs, ransom, witches melting, and detention. The students were on the edges of their seats with excitement as they watched the actors bring their ideas to life before their eyes.
As incredible at it was to witness the students’ creativity, watching their confidence grow throughout the workshop was even more exciting. At one point a student at Wilson High School called out, “I have a brilliant idea!” We hope all students will develop this attitude during their semester with YPT!
Summer is kind of a weird time for YPT. School’s out, but we’re still here. There’s stuff going on – the Woodlawn project, a great program with Horizons at Maret, our collaboration with Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Program – but it’s not nearly as busy as it will be again in September. During the summer, there’s a lot of time to think. Patrick Torres (our Associate Artistic Director) and I are spending a lot of time thinking together about the YPT curricula. Every summer we create a mountain of work for ourselves by refusing to rest until this program is perfect, and refusing to settle for good enough.
Fortunately we have help. We have a lot of vehicles for getting feedback. While school is in session, teaching artists send me workshop reports every week. They let me know what went well and what went wrong. Then we have an official post mortem where we talk through everything, workshop by workshop. We also pass out surveys to the students to find out what they think of YPT’s program. (New and improved student survey: in the works!) Teachers evaluate us too. My job as Program Manager is to synthesize all of this information so we can refine what we do, based on what everyone wants.
It’s exciting. The luxury of time means the luxury to dream. We question everything we think we know. We see the big picture and identify priorities. One of the coolest things we’ve come up with as a goal is that students will have more fun this year. Because writing is fun! Expressing yourself is fun! Being creative is fun! And fun is important. I believe we should be fostering a love of learning in our students. In 20 years, it’s less important that they remember the difference between a monologue and a dialogue, and more important that they remember how awesome it was when they heard their play read by professional actors.
So if any of our future students are reading, you should know that we’re going to plan the heck out of this curriculum. I won’t rest until you are having fun.