The Rogue Race

Teaching is hard every day. Even when my lesson plan is clear and my students are completely absorbed and engaged, teaching is really hard.

I feel the same way about running. It doesn’t matter if it’s a humid July afternoon in DC or a cool spring morning, whether I’m jogging on the treadmill or stumbling up a mountain. Rain or shine, hot or cold, running is always hard for me.

As a Resident Teaching Artist for YPT, my job is to teach, so I do it all the time. Running, though, is not my job, so I do it basically never. I know that I should, and I’m generally pretty happy after I do, but even as I think about running while writing this blog post I’m getting winded.

It was announced at a staff meeting earlier this fall that YPT would again be participating in the Acumen Solutions Race for a Cause, an 8K race that raised $12,000 for YPT in 2012. I was thrilled to have some much needed motivation to get me back in the running game.  About 41 seconds later though, I realized I would be in upstate New York for a wedding that weekend and wouldn’t be able to cross the finish line as my coworkers and friends cheered.

I decided a week or so later that I would run the 8K anyway. At home in New York, with the company of my boyfriend, I would create an 8K course and run it while my coworkers were doing the same in Virginia. I immediately told Brigitte, our Executive Director, about my plan to run a “rogue race”. I’d have to start running.  I told my boss I would.

Kate teaching It was around this time that I began teaching our In-School Playwriting Program for the first time. When I started at YPT in June, I had a wide range of teaching experiences under my belt.  I had lectured college classes on Performativity and the American Dream, I had taught three-year-olds to create ocean waves with their bodies, I had served as a literacy tutor for elementary school students, I had taught fiction classes to gifted teenagers and pretty much everything in between. But teaching playwriting in our classrooms across the Greater Washington region has proven to be the biggest challenge I have faced as an educator.

As a YPT teaching artist, my job is to provide students, in eleven weekly workshops, the inspiration, techniques and tools necessary to write a play. With close to thirty students in most of my classes, there is very little time for individualized attention or hand holding. My lesson plans must be clear and concise as we move quickly from one concept to the next, forcing my students to think creatively and analytically simultaneously. The moment they understand a concept, we’re on to the next one. Once they understand the role of a protagonist, they have to create their own. When they’ve discovered their protagonist’s objective, they’re creating obstacles to get in his or her way. We are constantly moving the carrot, leading them on a creative and intellectual journey that will hopefully conclude with the creation of an original one-act play.

Writing a play is no small feat for anyone. I’ve been stuck on page 47 of the play I’m writing right now for almost six months. Many of my students, however, have never seen a play, so as hard as it is for me to write a play, for them it’s harder.

The days I was in the classroom this fall proved to be the most difficult days to muster the willpower to throw on my sneakers and head outside. My feet were tired from standing all day and I almost always had a headache.

I started off running two miles at a time.  I was pretty disappointed with how difficult those first two miles were. Slowly, though, I was able to run two miles without wanting to throw up (a small victory, I thought). I’d run two and a half miles, and then three, slowly but surely working my way up to five. It was always hard. I would push myself each day for 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes just to come home, shower and realize I’d have to do it all over again the next day. I kept thinking it would get easier, but it didn’t, I’d just have to run farther.

Meanwhile, in the classroom, each workshop felt like a workout. Each lesson was a small goal either missed or achieved. One of my amazing partner teachers, the incomparable Ross Cohen, told me that as a teacher he feels like Sisyphus. Each day he pushes the boulder up a mountain for 90 minutes, only to start from the beginning and do it again with the next period.

While running never really got any easier, I did get better at it. By the time October 12th came along, I ran the 8K in 49 minutes. My mother set an alarm on her phone to come outside and cheer for us as we finished. We got there too quickly, though, and we finished the race without much pomp and circumstance. The two of us were sweaty and tired, but proud that we had finished. kate and nayt

In the classroom I feel that way each day. There’s no one there when the bell rings to give me a high five and say, “Way to go! That lesson on conflict was stellar!” When the bell rings, my students are usually starving, waiting for lunch and running out of the classroom as quickly as their legs can take them down to the cafeteria for a slice of pizza.

Hopefully, though, I pushed them just a little further than the week before. Hopefully, their creative muscles have been exercised and their endurance for this kind of thinking has increased. As their teacher, I’ve been strengthening these same muscles – pushing myself a little harder to make each class better than the one before.

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Kathryn Coughlin is a playwright, dramaturg and teaching artist serving as an Associate Producer for CulturalDC’s Source Festival. Kathryn’s plays include More Than Before, They Say There’s a War Going On, Sounds of Alarm and All We Have. Her work has been developed, produced and read by The Inkwell Theatre,Rorschach Theatre St. Bonaventure University, Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage,The Disreputables and Meat and Bone Theatre Company. As a dramaturg, Kathryn has worked with Source Festival, The DC Queer Theatre Festival, Taffety Punk Theatre Company and Arena Stage. Kathryn has worked as a teaching artist for Creative Kids, The Literacy Lab and John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

Our Playwrights Fear Nothing (Not Even Peanut Butter): Reflections on the New Play Festival

Last week, on April 11-13, YPT presented the 2011 New Play Festival. It was an inspiring experience for YPT’s young playwrights, artists, staff and the hundreds of community members who came out to GALA Hispanic Theatre to celebrate with us (we had overflowing houses all three nights!).

As YPT’s Program Assistant and a New Play Festival dramaturge, I was particularly inspired to watch a play written by one of my students make its way from the page to the stage over the past few months.

When I sat down to read Flatworm’s Courageous Act for YPT’s 2011 New Play Festival reading committee in January, I immediately remembered the student who wrote it.

I taught Lauren White’s 4th grade class at Lafayette Elementary School in the spring of 2010 through YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program, and though I hadn’t seen her in more than 6 months, Lauren stuck in my mind as a student who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and was always eager to write. As I read her play again for the reading committee, I was  reminded of why I nominated it for the festival last year. Lauren’s imaginative and hilarious play about a flatworm-turned-superhero who must overcome his fear of peanut butter to save the girl of his dreams (she’s held captive by a Peanut Butter Monster, naturally) left me in awe of her intelligence and creativity. The play’s silliness keeps the laughs coming, but also reads as a staged coming-of-age graphic novel, drawing upon the style and themes of classic comic books.

When YPT decided to produce Flatworm’s Courageous Act in the 2011 New Play Festival, I was excited to learn that I would have the opportunity to help bring Lauren’s vision to life as its dramaturge. After our first meeting, the blend of smart writing and wackiness in the play made total sense: while Lauren took copious notes and had an immediate idea for every suggestion I made, she also demonstrated her “Billy Bob Thorton as an Australian” impression for me while we waited for her mom to pick her up. I also learned where the mature stylistic elements in Flatworm’s Courageous Act came from. Lauren showed me some of the impressive cartoons she has drawn, including one of Flatworm himself, and told me that her mom is a professional artist.

After hearing Lauren’s play read by professional actors at the first New Play Festival read-through on March 12, I grew even more impressed with her playwriting expertise. The characters, style, and tone of her play were so clearly written that the actors immediately picked up on it and created a world of flawed but brave superheroes, gruff villains and shrieking damsels in distress.

Following Lauren through this entire process – from her first workshop in the Lafayette Library to the performance of Flatworm’s Courageous Act which took place last week – has been an amazing experience. It embodies what we aim to do at YPT: foster talented young writers and guide them through the playwriting process from their first monologue to their final round of applause.

To read Lauren’s take on the process, click here.

To see photos from last week’s New Play Festival, click here.

Laurie Ascoli
Program Assistant

A Superhero Play by a Superhero Student

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.

Brigitte
Development Director

whYPT? Let’s Ask the Students…

In the end, the answer to “whYPT?” is the students. For the last few weeks, we have been sharing the perspectives of staff and teaching artists on why YPT matters. But why do students actually take the time to imagine, write and turn in plays to their Teaching Artists during the In-School Playwriting Program? Why, after a day of school work, do they come to the Young Playwrights’ Workshop to learn acting and writing techniques as an ensemble?

“Young Playwrights’ Theater is a wonderful program where young adults can express themselves in many ways. Every Wednesday is full of new activities, new lessons and a more enjoyable time than the week before. The reason why I enjoy YPT is because it’s fun, it’s something I look forward to every Wednesday. In my opinion it should be more than just one meeting a week.”
-Reyna, 11th grade, Bell Multicultural High School

“When I decided to join YPT’s Young Playwrights’ Workshop I was looking to learn new writing techniques. In the Workshop, I learned how to make a character more interesting, practiced my English, and got feedback on my play from my teacher. By participating in YPT, I learned the power of writing. I found out that writing can be powerful because a play can inspire people, bring them joy, make them feel sadness, or learn something new. YPT to me is a door open to express yourself and be heard in our community.”
-Alfonso, YPT Alumnus

 “I first started off as a student in the In-School Playwriting Program my junior year of high school. I enjoyed the games and acting exercises that came along with the playwriting, and I decided to take it a step further and participate in the Young Playwrights’ Workshop. The acting workshops were sometimes a challenge; David wanted to stimulate our thoughts and have us thinking and writing outside our comfort zone. I enjoyed it so much that even after I graduated, I still wanted to be involved with YPT.”
Mercedes, YPT Alumna

“Normally, the prospect of writing a play can be really intimidating. But in our activities, YPT showed so much respect for our ideas; you felt that your perspective was valuable. Kids that had been unengaged in class were suddenly putting their experiences and fantasies down on paper to share. To us, this project was worth more than a grade.YPT was genuinely interested in what we as individuals wanted to write about. And because of that, I had the privilege of seeing students from all over the academic spectrum create something unique and communicative about themselves. I sincerely hope that YPT will continue to have the support it needs in order to facilitate that for future students and the support it needs to continue showing us how natural and liberating creativity can be.”
Sarah, YPT Alumna

whYPT?: It’s the Spark

It’s the spark, the moment of recognition. That moment where “I can’t” turns into something different—a “why not?” moment. It’s that moment when characters leap off of the page and start living their own lives and surprising the young playwright along the way. The moment when young writers discover their voices. That’s why I teach for YPT.

I tell my students, “There are no wrong answers.” And that’s when I see it—the confusion on their faces. Uh-oh. She’s asking us to use our imaginations. That’s for kids. For pre-school. We’re grown-ups. High school students. And we don’t have time for that. We need deadlines, we need page counts, we need strict guidelines for success. Tell us what is wrong. Tell us what is right. Just tell us what to do.

But, what I love about playwriting, what I love about working with YPT is that we challenge our students to pave their own courses, we teach them to nurture and trust their imaginations. We teach them to use candy bars as characters, the moon as a setting, to share the secret they’ve been holding in—to discover and create according to their own experiences and realities. For YPT students, there are no wrong answers.

It was in this spirit that I started teaching at Wakefield High School in Ms. Stotland’s ESOL classroom. A classroom where students spoke Spanish, Swahili, Arabic and more. A classroom where I was trying to teach playwriting. Some of the vocabulary we were learning they had never even heard in their own languages, and here I was trying to teach it to them in English.

It was there that I met Mariana Pavon Sanchez, an excellent student who knew all of the answers. But, she was afraid to speak in English to me unless her tenses were correct and her word choice was impeccable. Mariana’s first language was Spanish.

She wrote a play about her own life experience—trying to convince her father to let her fly alone to Nicaragua to visit her sick mother over Christmas break. She was chosen by YPT to have her play produced and performed by professionals. I spent a lot of time with Mariana dramaturging her play—helping her choose the exact words to communicate her story, adding some Spanish flair and learning about her family and experience along the way. Finally, after six months of working with her, Mariana became more comfortable speaking English to me.

It was almost a year ago when Mariana wrote her first play. In October, Mariana was chosen from many students to represent YPT when the company won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Mariana even read a part of her play at the White House.

Mariana’s experience is a perfect example of the freedom and voice playwriting can give to students. Her story came alive on stage—the story of immigrants to this country and the family they’ve left behind. YPT did that. YPT does this for all of its students. At the end of every In-School Playwriting Program residency, student work is celebrated by being performed by professional actors. YPT genuinely values and delights in hearing the voices of its students, in raising their voices to a crescendo, when once, there was only a whisper.

Meg
YPT Teaching Artist

From Spark to Stage in Twelve Weeks: YPT Kicks Off In-School Programming

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!

Laurie
Program Assistant

Back to School with YPT!

It’s such an exciting time of year. Last week YPT successfully trained our entire team of teaching artists to execute the In-School Playwriting Program. It was a somewhat daunting task. We’ve been dreaming all summer about how to make YPT better, how to create a richer experience for students, and how to make everything run more smoothly. All of a sudden it was the end of August (how did THAT happen?) – time to pull my head out of the clouds and get down to business.

Fortunately, (and I think this is a proven scientific fact) YPT has the best teaching artists in the entire world. They made training so easy, it was actually kind of confusing. I thought I might hear run of the mill questions like, “When are the first drafts due again?” Instead, we spent our time discussing strategies for serving students with special needs and testing the fun factor of YPT’s educational games. Seasoned teaching artists were generous enough to share their knowledge with those who will be teaching with YPT for the first time.

One such YPT veteran, Danielle Drakes, has experience teaching our After-School Playwriting Program and has also served as an actor for the In-School Playwriting Program. She spoke in particular about her experience with high school workshop six – The Language Workshop. The Language Workshop focuses on how a playwright uses word choice and grammar to affect an actor’s delivery. In one exercise, students are given a basic character (like “an old woman from the country trying to get some lazy kids off of her lawn”) and asked to write a couple lines that demonstrate how they imagine that person would speak. The actor’s role is to perform these lines exactly as the students write them.

Danielle said that it was her experience as an actor in The Language Workshop that made her want to teach the In-School program. She spoke about how powerful it was for students to find out that using language isn’t always about “right” and “wrong.” When you’re capturing a character’s voice, it’s OK to spell creatively and use unconventional grammar. Danielle told us about a student at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School who used the word “gunneh” in a play. She was able to have a sophisticated conversation with all her students: what’s the difference between “gunneh,” “gonna” and “going to”? Each choice communicates something specific about a character, and none of those choices are wrong!

YPT’s teaching artists are so intelligent, so creative, and so committed to students that it will blow your mind. We’re sending six of them to seven schools this fall. With help from Laurie Ascoli (our Program Assistant), Patrick Torres (our Associate Artistic Director), and me, YPT will reach twenty-one classes and serve about 450 students.

Did I mention that’s only the fall?

Welcome back everyone! Game on.

Nicole
Program Manager