Mara Miller is a Philly-based writer/editor and former Philadelphia Live Arts Festival editorial assistant.
While many bemoan the future of theater and its relevance to younger generations, since 1986 Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP) has given students from elementary through high school the opportunity to find creative expression though writing plays.
It was the brainchild of the late Adele Magner, inspired by New York City’s Young Playwrights, Inc., to unite a team of like-minded Philly-area educators and theater artists. Today PYP sustains itself with a mix of corporate, foundation, and individual sponsors, plus a slice of earned revenue from school contributions. More than 20,000 students have written plays through the program—1,700 last year alone. And each one has something to say.
Kate McGrath is a teaching artist with Philadelphia Young Playwrights. In addition to its annual citywide festival and production series, which brings the visions of a select few budding dramatists to professional stages, the organization links artists like Kate with classroom teachers for in-class, cross-curricular projects. After over two decades on the job, Kate has heard it all.
Though she’s encountered the lighthearted and the zany (“Kids write the best comedies,” she said, citing vegetables who escape from fridges or crayons that come alive), McGrath said there’s no shortage of stories about gangs, addictions, divorces, or suicides. To Young Playwrights’ credit, these issues are given room to breathe on paper and on stage, rather than hushed in favor of more sterile topics.
And while creative expression of any sort can surely help young people navigate difficult lives, McGrath has a particular faith in drama.
“There is something different about hearing your own words in dialogue form,” she said. “There’s a big spark that comes from hearing and seeing something you felt and wrote, but coming out of another person’s mouth.”
Glen Knapp is the executive producing director at Young Playwrights, and his goal is not to churn out world-class dramatists (though PYP has been there, done that) but to use that spark, that flash of self-confidence and creative power, to put kids back in the driver’s seat where they belong.
“When students write about their lives,” he said, “they are empowered to change them. . . . It’s about engaging them in their lives and their education rather than programming it for them.”
Still, some students grow fixated on the competition that PYP hosts each year and, instead of meditating on inner demons or cooking up a precocious social commentary, bombard instructors like Ms. McGrath with emails about “how to fix my play so I can win.” (Surprise: it’s often the Masterman kids.)
In fact, McGrath said her more daring work often comes from the Strawberry Mansions of the public school world, rather than from the Lower Merions. “Sometimes they get stuck in a rut,” she said of the latter crowd, “because they’ve seen plays, and so they try to write something that they think a play is supposed to be like.”
An uninitiated student, on the other hand, might defy boundaries he didn’t know existed.
Nathan Wainstein, a teaching apprentice who got his own start with PYP as a teen, said there are many ways to be pleasantly surprised by students’ work.
“There are certain traps that any playwright tends to fall into,” he said. “But I’m amazed by students’ ability to examine their work with a critical eye and to totally reimagine it, structurally or otherwise.” “These are real challenges in writing, and when a young writer just says oh, ok, I get that, and works on it, I’m impressed.”
Pascale Smith, a soon-to-graduate 12th-grader, wrote her first play, Timeline, in the fall of 2011. A first place winner, the work was produced and performed at Temple’s Tomlinson Theater in November. Smith, who will study playwriting at Fordham this fall, called her experience with Young Playwrights “arguably life-changing.”
“When you write a script, you’re essentially writing people,” she said. “It is much more complicated than an essay or a paper, because not only do you have to formulate ideas and arguments, but you need to create three-dimensional characters and dialogue . . . I personally think it is one of the most rewarding writing forms.”
Manna-Symone Middlebrooks, an 11th-grader, was not always a fan of writing. “My work with PYP has helped me recognize my skills as a writer and lose a fear of the arts that I used to have,” she said.
And just as importantly: “The entire process made me dig deep within myself to find things that even I did not know existed, step outside of my comfort zone, and ultimately become an advocate for my characters and the people and situations they represent.”
Her first play, a history project that took on the topic of sweatshop labor from perspectives inside and out, was called But I’ve Got My Fingers and These Ashes.
All the adults—administrators, teachers, apprentices—know they are lucky are to work with student writers like Pascale and Manna.
Kate McGrath, the veteran teaching artist, said it is not uncommon for students’ insights to inspire her own work. “We’re not just teachers,” she said. “We’re teaching artists. And what they do and say absolutely finds its way into our craft.”
To Knapp, in this teaching and learning ecosystem, “there really is no stasis.”
He explained,“Basically, by placing students at the center of what we do, that creates a compelling and fast-moving train that we try to provide the platform for them to jump on.”
And he, too, is grateful the exchange is not one-way. “We have at our fingertips the issues of young people, which are the issues of the future, and what we should be paying attention to anyway. Nobody else is providing that pipeline.”