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Kids write for the stage: Young Playwrights prepare for Overture festival

It's last period at Waunakee Community High School, and the juniors and seniors in Jen Doucette's creative writing class are getting squirmy. Bruce Bradley, a teaching artist who has spent the last few weeks guiding them through the process of writing plays, is holding a stack of evaluations from theater pros - and the students are eager to see how their scripts fared.

Before handing back the "evals," Bradley, a bearded Welsh actor and playwright, wants to impart some wisdom on dealing with critics. The students shift around in their seats, some craning their necks to get a peek.

"You need to read these in a somewhat schizophrenic fashion," Bradley cautions. "Quite often, they have said things in these assessments that are very accurate. But don't get carried away with what they've said. And do not take it personally. It's not about you. It's about your play."

The evaluation process is key to the Young Playwrights Program, coordinated by Children's Theater of Madison (CTM). Lindsey Hoel-Neds, the program's coordinator and a teaching artist at East and Edgewood, says the students also critique each other. But when it comes to the evaluations, students "hang on every word."

"Teaching artists and teachers can give them all this feedback, but that review sheet is someone who doesn't know them. They take it seriously. It hits them so hard. There always has to be a little speech: 'As a writer, you think about other people's feedback but also think about following your heart.'"

Young Playwrights began in 2003 as a pilot program of the Madison Repertory Theatre and teachers at East High School. When the Rep closed its doors in 2009, CTM added Young Playwrights to its educational programming. Teaching artists, like Bradley and Hoel-Neds, collaborate with teachers to merge playwriting into existing course offerings. They then meet with students to teach fundamentals of playwriting, helping students develop 10-minute plays.

This year, CTM had teaching artists at East, Shabazz, Edgewood, Waunakee, Middleton, and Monona Grove Liberal Arts Charter School for the 21st Century. Teachers forward finished scripts to Hoel-Neds, who distributes them to a network of approximately 50 readers. They score the scripts on evaluation forms.

From approximately 250 scripts submitted for evaluation, 20 were chosen as finalists, and of those, CTM directors and staff picked eight (at least one play from each school) for a public staged reading. This year's Young Playwrights Festival will take place in the Overture Center's Playhouse on Tuesday, May 14.

Edgewood high school senior Jack Tancill's play "Tannenbaum" takes place in Switzerland as intelligence officers debate that country's involvement in World War II. Tancill told me in an email he was "anxious to see my work performed on an actual stage."

According to Bradley, students can sometimes use playwriting as a way to work through difficult issues in their lives or as a way to process current events.

"This year we had one play - basically autobiographical - about a young woman who is dating a soldier who's been deployed to Afghanistan," Bradley told me. "It's obviously a very personal issue for her, but we've had students who've written about bullying, physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug usage, and things that are just going on the world that seem big and overpowering and puzzling to them."

Not all the plays deal with the dark side. Jeffrey Beczkiewicz, a Waunakee senior, wrote a comedy about a family's response to the arrival of a mysterious package. He says he was inspired by a package that arrived on his doorstep around Christmas.

Few of the students I met in Waunakee had much experience with live theater, even as audience members. Because of the influence of television and the Internet, teaching artists have students read aloud to get a sense of what can work onstage.

"You have to break down this preconceived idea of how a story works," Bradley explains. "They think they can jump cut. They think they can do multiple locations. They think they can go back and forth in time. They think it's okay to have spaceships landing on the stage."

According to Hoel-Neds, Young Playwrights allows students to write whatever they want.

"I was surprised by how free I could be, and that was the hardest part," Ella Beckman, a senior at Edgewood, wrote in an email. "I have always been given a topic to write about, so it was really difficult to come up with something all by myself."

Beckman knew she wanted to write a play about a relationship. "I was really stuck on what to write about. I went down to the trainer at our school and told her what I was doing, and she jokingly said 'make it about a training room.'" So that's what she did.

Beckman found the peer review process helped her strike a balance. "It taught me how to use constructive criticism, and that even if someone says something about your work, you don't always have to make a change. One person said my character was unbelievable, and another said she was perfectly fine and she could picture her."

This creative latitude is a rarity in today's education system, says Hoel-Neds, a former English teacher. "Today, when things are so testing-based and focused on results, that creativity piece sometimes goes out the window. I feel like this program is a chance for these kids to be creative and to have their voices heard."

[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Madison Repertory Theatre closed in 2009.]

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