When Bryan Mercado, then 10, was first told he had been signed up for a playwriting workshop after school with Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT), a D.C.-based arts education nonprofit and professional theater, he was less than thrilled. “I just wanted to go outside and play with my friends after school,” he said, bemused at his younger self.
Six weeks later Mercado had finished his first script—the story of a pair of twins that got “sucked into a video game and had to fight their way back out” (he emphasized this was before the movie Jumanji was released). Soon after, he learned that his play had been selected to be professionally produced by YPT as part of their 2018 New Play Festival.
I wasn’t expecting to win,” Mercado explained with an incredulous tone. “I did put my best effort because I never like to turn in things that are mid-way done. I wanted it to be well done.” He describes the process of watching his play be staged by a professional cast and crew as “wild.”
YPT Program Director Jared Shamberger’s face lights up as he listens to Mercado’s retelling over our collective Zoom call. “We very much see our job as to serve as an amplifier for student voices. We want them to have the experience of seeing their words brought to life on stage and really see what that process is.”
Shamberger, a local playwright, actor and director in his own right, is a man who appears to have found his calling, both in the theater and in cultivating a new generation of young playwrights. His boundless positive energy can be felt even in the context of a video call as he describes YPT’s in-school, after school and now online programs.
Founded by award-winning D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías, YPT has been offering playwriting programs in DC public schools since 1995. In that quarter century, the nonprofit has instructed more than 1,000 students per year– many in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Instructors, many of whom are professional or aspiring playwrights, suggest edits (alongside the students’ own peers), provide advice and mentorship, and support the students in their goal of crafting a play (with a minimum of five scenes) that speaks in their own voice and to their own experience.
“We believe children are inherently brilliant,” Shamberger effuses. “We never tell students what they need to write about. We value their creativity. Our job is to give them tools and get out of their way.”
In the era of Covid, YPT has been forced to temporarily halt their in-person school programs but was quick to adapt. It began offering virtual playwriting workshops early last spring for both students and adult writers. Most of these workshops are offered at low or no-cost to their students, based on their ability to pay.
While many organizations have struggled to maintain ‘business as usual,’ YPT has continued to innovate and expand their offerings: their website now offers a series of instructional videos, digital materials and even downloadable playwriting classes. YPT’s new Writers At Play program is specifically designed for teachers and parents to help them teach playwriting at their own pace.
“One of the beautiful things about this time is that it’s allowed us to expand our reach,” Shamberger says. YPT’s expanded online offerings have allowed students to take virtual playwriting courses throughout the DMV area, as well as around the world, Shamberger explained.
Mercado is one such student, now enrolled in YPT’s Digital Playwriting Program, which takes place on Zoom with a Teaching Artist twice a week. He is working on a play about a couple who are arguing about whether it is safe to go outside during the Covid-19 epidemic and he sheepishly offers that he “hopes to win again.”
I, for one, will be on the lookout for Mercado’s future work, and hoping that YPT students will see their work up on the (non-virtual) stage very soon.