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

Oppression. Rebellion. Unrest. Family. Devotion. Equality. Progress.

These are just some of the issues explored  by 12th grader Ellen Hubbard in her play Mercy Mercy Me, which will be featured in next month’s New Writers Now! – From Civil War to Civil Rights.

Mercy Mercy Me focuses on one African American family living in mid-sixties Chicago, at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Parents Charlotte and James struggle to make ends meet, focusing on their family despite the injustices they face every day. Neither they nor their children, however, can ignore these injustices for long.

Ellen, who was in 11th grade at Bell Multicultural High School when she wrote the play, is passionate about the Civil Rights period.  “Everything from that movement inspired me because if all those people could get through that, you could get through anything,” she says.  “And they kept their sense of humor through it all. That’s important.”

While her poignant portrayal of one family’s search for equality takes place more than four decades ago, Ellen knows it will still strike a chord with today’s audience.  “There are still a lot of movements going on,” she points out. “Animal rights, the women’s movement…There are still a lot of people struggling to get their rights recognized.”

In addition to identifying with the themes she examines, Ellen also hopes that her audience will find inspiration in James and Charlotte’s story.  “I hope people will be inspired to do whatever they want to in spite of the obstacles in their way, as far as money or whatever else.  And be thankful for what they have,” she says.  “I hope the audience can relate to it – and still have a couple of laughs!”

New Writers Now! – From Civil War to Civil Rights will be performed on February 7, at 7pm, at GALA Hispanic Theatre (3333 14th St. NW).  Admission is free.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Program Assistant

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!

Development Assistant

Elementary School Musical

Every Sunday night when I was growing up, my dad would pick up ice cream sundaes from our local diner and we would eat them together while watching The Simpsons. It was a great tradition, but as I got older I lost interest in the show and moved on to more sophisticated programming like Nick News with Linda Ellerbee. When I heard that this week’s Simpsons episode would feature brilliant folk parody duo Flight of the Conchords, however, I had to tune in.  Little did I know how much the episode would appeal to me: it focuses on artists and arts education, specifically Lisa’s week-long trip to an arts camp.

Lisa is sent to the camp while her brother, Bart, is in Stockholm accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with Krusty the Klown (of course), and she immediately falls in love. In her week at camp, she performs mime and Mame, makes wallets with Stephen Sondheim, and learns that artists “make society see its faults clearer”, “help stamp out oppression and wars”, and “end poverty with music and dance”. “I’ve finally found the place I belong,” Lisa sighs. Soon her week is over, however, and she has to return to school where the bullies ask her about “farts camp” and her teachers tell her she’ll never reach her dreams.

While in my experience, being an artist isn’t quite as unpopular as it is in Springfield, I certainly identify with being the awkward kid in school and then finding a home in the arts; one of the few things I liked about elementary school was my after-school drama program.  And now, as an arts educator with Young Playwrights’ Theater, I get to see this in my classes all the time: kids who are uncomfortable and unsure of themselves finding their footing through drama, writing, music and dance.

While The Simpsons hit the nail on the head with the importance of arts education, what I found most interesting and relatable about the episode was the uncomfortable truths it revealed about working as an artist. When Lisa runs away from home to find her camp counselors in Sprooklyn, Springfield’s most artistic borough, she discovers that life as an artist is not all she dreamed it would be. By day they work at a sandwich shop, stealing tomatoes to get by, while by night they play guitar in a run-down, nearly empty night club. “Are you saying that arts camp was a lie?”  Lisa asks in horror. While her counselor responds sheepishly with, “Well…not the swimming”, I have to disagree.

All of us who work in the arts have that shattering moment when we realize that what we love most in the world offers little comfort or stability, which is why the passion that Lisa discovers at camp is essential to a career in the arts. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to make our living in the arts have struggled and paid our dues with less fulfilling day jobs, but the end result is getting to do work that we love and believe in, and getting to work with others who are equally passionate.

In the end of the episode, Lisa decides to return to Sprooklyn when she is older and less naïve, and even though The Simpsons haven’t aged in 22 years, I hope she does. I know she could find an easier life in a more stable career, but nothing is worth trading the one place you know you belong.

Program Assistant

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!

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.

Program Manager