Over the past seventeen years, the Young Playwrights’ Theater has reached over 8,000 elementary, middle and high school students throughout the greater D.C. area with free, in-depth playwriting and literacy workshops. During that time they have professionally produced 240 plays and performed for more than 83,000 people while employing over 600 area theatre artists.
The New Play Festival is the pinnacle of their year wherein twelve plays, chosen from among 700 entrants, receive a full, professionally rehearsed performance. During this past year, they had so many outstanding entrants they added a new category – “Finalists.” Fifteen finalists were chosen and their work received fully staged readings at various venues around the D.C. metro area just prior to the New Play Festival staged on April 23 & 24.
Over the course of two nights, twelve different plays were staged with professional actors in a “black box” space made available by the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Audiences were treated to searingly authentic dialogue, laugh out loud comic moments, surprising life lessons learned the hard way and imaginations running rampant. At times, I felt as though I had been allowed into a world my children rarely let me see — a world of very vulnerable, insightful and unafraid- to-feel-what-I’m-feeling teen-age hearts and minds.
The twelve playwrights and the plays they wrote for the New Play Festival all deserve to be mentioned here. You’ll find them credited at the end of this article. Attempting to write individual reviews for each one just doesn’t fit the spirit of the New Play Festival. Suffice it to say that some really wonderful, innovative theatrics are taking place right under our noses and, after 17 years, people are beginning to notice.
For the first time ever, the plays written by both the finalists and those chosen for the New Play Festival have been published.
Except YPT is not really about producing plays! YPT is all about providing young people with an opportunity to learn language and writing skills, to be challenged to think for themselves and give expression to their fertile imaginations through the medium of playwriting. And they do that brilliantly. By the way, these are not kids handpicked from among the honors classes at the best schools. Thirty-five percent of the program participants speak English as a second language and sixty-four percent live at or near the national poverty line.
The results are stunning. Upon completion of the program, students are measured in three different writing skill areas: ability to convey unique points of view and innovative thinking; creating compelling, active and fully formed characters; and manipulating language to accurately portray character and environment in their plays. At the beginning of the program, somewhere between 40% and 53 % test out as being “proficient” or “exemplary.” By the end of the program, those percentages jump to between 79% and 87%, roughly double.
Those are the measurable results. The intangibles may be even more important. These young writers are unafraid to speak out on tough subjects: bullying, incurable cancer, inappropriate peer pressure – even trauma suffered by service men and women returning from various ill-advised wars we have sent them to fight. Some of these “playlets” sock you right in the gut. Others could easily hold their own on Comedy Central and all of them have an element of enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre that make them a delight to behold. The playwrights walk out of this program with greater self-confidence and a level of self-esteem that has taken some of us years (make that decades) of therapy and meditation to achieve.
A very important part of the program is the opportunity the young playwrights have to work with professional theatre artists — young actors, directors, producers and dramaturgs paid to work with the kids in the development of their plays. In the words of Producing Artistic Director Snider, the program is now a legitimate “economic driver” in the D.C. arts community.
Producing Artistic Director David Andrew Snider wants YPT to go viral and spread to other major population centers around the country. I would not bet against them.
To learn more go to Young Playwrights’ Theater.
Five stars, highest rating to YPT’s New Play Festival and all its vibrant and passionate participants:
The Book and the Restless by Aayanna Collier, 5th grade at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Charter School
Robbed by Chris Chio, 8th grade at McFarland Middle School
The Magic Bracelet by Carmela Pascale, 5th grade at Bancroft Elementary School
Frozen Cactus by Shawn Lee, 9th grade at Ballou High School
Mr. Pig by Miranda Pomroy, 5th grade at Watkins Elementary School
Polished by Julie Kashmanian, 8th grade at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program
Silena Sky by Ashley Harris, 5th grade at Watkins Elementary School
The Stranger by Sam Burris, Swanson Middle School
In Times of Pain, There’s Trouble by Rosina Paz-Castillo, 10th grade at Edmund Burke School
Under Pressure by Erin Powers, 11th grade at Bell Multicultural High School
Carlos and Jose by Kevin Callejas,10th grade at Wakefield High School
The Alligator Summer by Nana Gongadze, 8th grade at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program