Walden Theatre’s annual Young Playwrights Festival was held this past weekend on the Nancy Niles Sexton stage. The Festival featured eight plays written by current Walden Theatre students, with actors drawn from the Walden student body and directors from ATL interns, a Stage One staff member and a Walden alumna.
The scripts reflected a broad range of realism and parody, with subjects ranging from teen love to post-Depression survival to cults based on franchises of toys and movies. In general the scripts were most successful when the young playwrights focused on themes and characters which are discernibly part of their life experiences. It was somewhat concerning that the teacher figures in all of the plays in which they appeared were characterized as shouting, unfeeling, and unobservant. While there are, no doubt, teachers that fit these descriptions, it’s unfortunate that these are the only versions of teachers we saw on stage; I’d like to think that, at least at Walden, the students experience teaching artists who transcend this stereotype.
The two scripts that resonated most with me were One Last Dance (Ian Jackson, 12th grade) and Scars (Jack Keyes, 9th grade). The writing in both these plays felt authentic to the experiences of the teen characters, and directors honored the intimacy of the conversations between the two characters in each script. In One Last Dance, Mr. Jackson brings a young man and a young woman to the outside steps of a party where they talk about who they love. It’s clear these two care about each other, trusting each other with their emotions, and there’s a sense that each of them, at different times, could be describing the other as the one they love. The twist at the end – as to who actually loves whom – was crafted effectively. Scars is a poignant exploration of how young teens respond to family crises and the way their community treats them as a result of those events; the quiet resilience of children in such circumstances was etched with a resigned acceptance of the vagaries of adults.
The first three plays of the program dealt, variously, with school themes: #2 Pencil Only (Lilia Conklin, 9th grade), Time Play (Lucy Fitzgerald, 8th grade), and Table 3 (Travis Ryan, 9th grade). Ms. Conklin takes the opportunity of a test and an absent (though somewhat implausibly) teacher to riff on the idea of popularity and power in the classroom. The types of students about whom she writes are highly recognizable and the secondary characters’ dialogue rings true. I suspect some editing would strengthen the main character’s trajectory. It’s possible that staging choices (or setting description from the playwright) may have impacted the role of the teacher – the storage cupboard being more visible, the potential reappearance of the teacher, and the possibility of him overhearing would give more urgency to the actions in the classroom. Ms. Fitzgerald’s exploration of time is delightfully quirky, with an irrationally-assigned detention providing the opportunity for a student to step into a parallel time zone. Would this student have overcome her embarrassment about writing a boy’s name on her binder without this out-of-time detour? We can’t be sure, but the sweet outcome was refreshing. Mr. Ryan’s lunchtime extravaganza – and nightmare for running crew – is a tongue-in-cheek re-structuring of the clique-ishness of school cafeterias. The characters in this piece are clearly ‘types’ but are written with a robustness that allows them to be more than merely stereotypes.
Wandering (Olivia Millar, 8th grade) is a dark examination of the sometimes desperate choices we make when we care for someone. Ms. Millar sets her story in a non-specific post-Depression period; it’s not clearly the Great Depression of the 1930s, so it’s possible to interpret it as potentially contemporary, which is disquieting. The one structural weakness is the underwritten arrival of the fourth child – Who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her story? Is she just there to observe and report on the fatal action? With undertones of themes from Lord of the Flies, The Road, and similar post-disaster writings, it would be interesting to see this developed more.
Ze Pizza Delivery Guy (Jack Schaver, 8th grade) was the piece I found most problematic.
All the characters in this piece are adults and their dialogue and interactions don’t ring true. The intervention of the police at the end provides a too-convenient resolution to what has become an almost-farcical script.
Chris Lockhart’s (11th grade) More Than Meets the Eye was placed last on the program, presumably because it is almost twice as long as the other plays. This served the play and was a needed lift after the two preceding more serious pieces; but the convention of a complete blackout between the two scenes – after blackouts following the preceding one-scene plays – allowed the energy of the piece to dissipate. Mr. Lockhart’s transposition of Transformers’ characters and conflicts into the lives of college students demonstrates a sure comedic hand, together with a sly side-swipe at the hypocrisy of those who claim to have found a New Way. The denouement was delightful, and could be even more tightly written – audiences will get it.
The Walden actors entered into the worlds of each of these scripts with energy and commitment. It was particularly rewarding to see that these young actors are comfortable with stillness and silence on stage; obviously they moved and spoke, but they and their directors also found the moments when characters needed to be quiet and unmoving. They did so effectively and without looking uncomfortable or rushing through those moments – an important attribute to gain this early in their careers.
Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner