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.]comments powered by Disqus
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.
The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.