Northwestern Press

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Creativity discovered anew in Young Playwrights' Lab

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

Instead of teaching to the test, the Young Playwrights' Festival reaches for the stage.

The creative process, the writing and the plays' staging are key to its success, says Mary Wright, Touchstone Theatre Ensemble Associate and Young Playwrights Lab Coordinator:

"With schools' budgets getting cut further and further, anytime the arts can get reintroduced to the schools is a big deal."

The eighth Young Playwrights' Festival, a showcase of plays written by local elementary and middle school students, is 7 p.m. May 18, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem.

Immediately following the performance is a gala reception in the Lehigh University Art Galleries to benefit Touchstone and its "ArtsTouch" education programs.

The program is technically called the Young Playwrights' Lab, an eight-week residency developed by Touchstone and the Bethlehem Area School District to improve attitudes toward literacy and achievement in academic standards by linking literacy and creative self-expression.

Wright, who also teaches in the program's labs, explains:

"What I found so utterly delightful about it is watching the kids going from thinking that they had nothing to say to realizing they had something to say.

"By middle school, my own kids were being told that the kinds of things they had to write were explanatory: here's your opening statement, here's your backup and here's your concluding statement.

"That has its place. But because so much of the writing is geared toward that, there's not as much creative writing.

"Theater is about breaking those rules that are constricting."

Wright has taught in the program for the past four years. She had left the Touchstone Ensemble for awhile. She got back involved through teaching in the playwrights' lab.

Playwrights' Lab participant schools this year include Dual Language Charter School, Donegan Elementary; Freemansburg Elementary; Lincoln Elementary, all Bethlehem, and Harrison-Morton Middle and Central Elementary, both Allentown.

Students in third through eighth grades participate. There are seven labs at six schools. Approximately 100 students participated this year. One play from each school is produced for the festival performance.

"The theater lab starts with theater games and being on your feet rather than sitting in a chair. For a lot of kids, being freed from their chairs frees up their creative minds as well.

"You can have your play set anywhere. People's imaginations are so huge that you don't have to limit it.

"One of the things that I discovered is that the freedom they found in expressing themselves excited them to write again.

"Sometimes when the kids get stuck for ideas, we say, 'Let's put it on its feet.' Seeing what they've written on its feet helps them edit, helps them problem-solve."

There are eight Touchstone playwrights' lab teaching artists. Wright taught in three different labs. There is an after-school component, which includes school faculty.

"I love the idea that it's a lab, a place for experimentation," Wright says.

"It's happy time around Touchstone Theatre when it's Young Playwrights' time because the plays are fun. The kids' creativity feeds us.

"The kids' scripts are very creativity and leave a lot of open space for us to be creative."

Wright is host for the festival performances at Zoellner.

"I would love to act in them. The plays are so broadly drawn and delightful."

She said Touchstone had about 100 audition to be in the plays. "People come back year after year to be in it because it's so much fun."

Audiences return year after year, too.

"People walk away in amazement at what some of these kids are able to imagine and write. Even if the play's are fun, there are still heartfelt and important messages in them.

"The plays may have princesses and witches and cats that talk and trees that talk and all kinds of amazing things and zany things that happen. But underneath all that are messages of bravery, loyalty, loving your parents and sometimes you don't always get what you want and that's OK."

Wright says one of her favorite parts of the festival is when the young playwrights are brought up on stage and she watches them receive the audience's applause.

"For some of these kids, it's the first time they've had this kind of affirmation of their abilities.

"They get to see the whole process, from blank paper, to all fleshed-out. The magic of something appearing on stage that was only a vague idea in your head is really powerful -- and that they are able to create something real and that their creativity as an artist is taken seriously."

This year, the Young Playwrights' Festival is supported by the Lehigh Valley Health Network, the naming sponsor. Media sponsorship is provided by WDIY.

Wright says she thinks it's significant that a health-care organization is a sponsor, as it's a recognition that, among other things, healthy, creative minds are an important part of a healthy community.