This year

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.]

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: No judgements with No Excuse Mom

If there is an excuse for not working out and eating healthy, I have used it: I don't have time. I'm too tired. I'll start tomorrow. I'm no good at this, I give up. I don't know where to start. Yes, I have used all of these and more.

Mama Madison: Introducing kids to your CSA box

At almost a year old, my kids are in the blissful stage of life where they'll eat nearly anything that I put in front of them (at least as long as it doesn't require much in the way of molar action).

Mama Madison: Changing tables, changing times

My family recently went through something that we have not experienced in over eight years. We have become a household that no longer harbors a crib or a changing table.

From museum to school with MMoCA

"There really is no wrong way to do it." That's how Madeline, age 13, describes creating artwork. She and her classmates at Prairie View Middle School in Sun Prairie are honing their artistic skills by participating in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Art on Tour program.

Mama Madison: Coping with toddlers in a Wisconsin winter

I'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

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.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

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?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

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.

Mama Madison: Back-to-school confidences

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.

Mama Madison: Does back-to-school really mean a whole new wardrobe?

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?"

Mama Madison: Next generation of bloggers

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.

Mama Madison: Returning to the workforce

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.

Triathlons raise money to teach kids healthy habits

"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.