Aspiring young writers learn the playwright’s craft

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(Host) For the past nine years, the Vermont Stage Company has given middle and high school students the opportunity to become playwrights. The annual Vermont Young Playwrights Project has worked with over 2,000 students. Each year, the project concludes with the performance of several plays created by these young writers.

Recently, VPR’s Steve Zind spent time with a group of aspiring playwrights at one Vermont high school.

(Dana Yeaton) “In general folks, when you’re creating characters for the stage, think economically and build from nothing. Create one because you have to have one. Create another because you have to have an antagonist. From then on you earn every character. The fewer you have, the more life you’re going to be able to give them.”

(Zind) One day last March, a group of students sat on mats in the wrestling room at Mount Abraham High School in Bristol as playwright Dana Yeaton explained the basics of his craft. Yeaton has been leading the Vermont Young Playwrights Project since it began. He’ll spend two days at a high school working with aspiring playwrights. The goal: write a one-act play.

To get the students started, Yeaton uses a series of exercises. First he asks them to complete a single sentence.

(Yeaton) “It’s an incomplete sentence that I give them: ‘I am fascinated by people who…(blank).’ And you can start talking about, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you were fascinated by the central character in your own play.'”

(Zind) Yeaton asks them to give their character a name, a goal and an obstacle to that goal. The exercise is working for Kate DiMercurio.

(DiMercurio) “When I had to write out the people who fascinate us, I know a lot of older women who are all a little eccentric. So I figured I’d try that one out.”

(Zind) The creative juices are also beginning begin to flow for Junior Josie Hopwood.

(Hopwood) “I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I do now, I have this really good plan.”

(Zind) The student’s time with Yeaton is short. The bulk of the work is done at home alone- using the lessons learned in the daylong sessions at school. It takes a lot of discipline and motivation to finish a play. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Junior Sarah Joy.

(Joy) “I will do multiple numbers of drafts – five, six, seven.”

(Zind) This is Sarah’s third year in the Young Playwrights program.

(Joy) “I started by reading Oscar Wilde plays in seventh and eighth grade.”

(Zind) Halfway through the first day, it’s time to see how well the student’s have applied what they’ve learned. Scenes are improvised using the characters and motivations each student has developed, along with the first line of dialogue. Kate’s eccentric older woman is named Fifi. Fifi has a son named Ivan.

(DiMercurio) “The first line is for Fifi and you say, ‘My most wonderful Ivan. I’m going to die tomorrow and before I do, I need to learn how to be a gladiator.”

(Zind) The student’s ideas are all over the map: there’s Kate’s farcical mother-son conflict. In another improve, two toilet paper tycoons battle for market share. There are some existential characters as well, like a man who simply wants to be understood. Another character arrives in New York in search of God.

(Sound from a student’s plady)
“New York at last. God must be here!”
“There is no God.”
“There has to be God.”
“How can you believe in God…?”

(Zind) Most of the improvisations quickly grind to a stop. The character’s motivations are often unclear. Yeaton and the students offer suggestions.

(Yeaton) “The reason we do improves, by the way, is so you can find out whether your idea has enough clarity and momentum to take off without you.

“My goal is that by the end of the day, they’ve got enough information and have had enough experience of trying to write that they can actually come up with an idea and write freely when they get home.”

(Zind) Two weeks later the group gathers again in the wrestling room. They’ve brought the scripts they’ve written since the first session. The students will act the parts in each other’s plays. Four chairs are lined up in the front of the room.

(Yeaton) “These chairs represent the maximum of four characters you’ll have in your play.”

(Zind) Kate’s Fifi is back. Kate has sharpened Fifi’s lines and given her a new goal.

(Sound from DiMercurio’s play) “Since tomorrow is the day I buy the farm, kick the bucket, cash in my chips, bite the dust, peg out, put on a wooden overcoat so to speak, I simply must do one thing. I must win a triatholon.”

(Zind) But Kate says she can’t figure out how to end her play. Ike Mulqueen-Duquette has a similar problem. His play involves a very unfunny comedian who’s trying to get comedy job. For Ike, who’s on the shy side, showing his work to others is a valuable part of the experience.

(Mulqueen-Duquette) “I write stories and I’ve had a hard time showing them to people, but this was very useful.”

(Zind) Nora Parren’s play, “Life Through Death” is set on a dock in Ireland during the potato famine. A young girl named Ananora has been robbed of the money she needs to buy a passage to America.

(Parren) “It took me forever to think of a topic. I was thinking about what interests me and what’s always interested me is history. My great grandmother’s name was Honanorah and she did immigrate from Ireland during the potato famine, so that was where the idea basically came from.”

(Zind) In the play, Honanorah meets an older man whose plans to emigrate have been dashed by the death of his wife. The man plans to sell his tickets to give his wife a decent funeral – Honanorah, of course, could use a ticket. The story is rich in dialect, character and family history. It is Nora’s play that is ultimately selected as a finalist. It was performed at this month’s Young Playwrights Festival in Burlington.

(Sound from Parren’s play)
“Would your wife want you to squander that money, and those tickets, on a trivial funeral?
“Trivial? You mean to take advantage of my sorrow!”

(Zind) For Nora Perran and the other students who may spend much of the time writing in isolation, the Young Playwrights Project is an affirmation that their interest is shared by others – and a chance to have their work taken seriously. Many say they’ll be back next year, once again developing characters and writing dialogue – in an effort to reach those final, exhilarating words.

“The end!!!” (applause)

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Bristol.

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