In the past year, 910 high school students from Kentucky and Southern Indiana wrote ten-minute plays and submitted them to the New Voices Contest at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Yup, you read that right: 910 students in the Louisville area wrote plays! How great is that! The students participated in Actors Education’s 2017-18 New Voices classroom residency program—which culminated in full productions of eight scripts by ATL’s Professional Training Company at the 13th New Voices Young Playwrights Festival this spring; the plays will be published in an anthology this fall. I teach in the New Voices program, along with DG member Jane B. Jones, ATL’s Education Director. Jane and I recently talked about how working with young playwrights impacts her own process as a playwright.
“Having students see the playwriting process new, allows me to see it new,” Jane says. “I start by reminding them that we know this stuff. We watch TV and Netflix; we know what a good story is. I tell them that story-telling is part of our make-up; it’s who we are—and that they should feel empowered to tell a satisfying story. I also acknowledge that it’s always going to be hard. It’s difficult to mine your emotional truth. I tell them that they should build in some futzing-around time—that it takes me 30 minutes to just sit down. It’s re-affirming to see students struggle with their plays. This is just what it is. There’s no failing in me, either. It just takes a while.”
“The students’ work can range from random to bold,” Jane says. “Sometimes you get a lot of atmosphere—but no action. Others write what I call ‘Capital D Drama’; they want to tackle big things—teen pregnancy, suicide, depression, rape—and maybe a couple of those things in just five or six pages. But when those plays are read aloud, the class responds. The boldness is exciting.” Random or bold, Jane emphasizes that playwrights need to be able to articulate themes. “What are you writing about?” she asks. “How does every character choice relate to something bigger?”
Other take-aways from teaching New Voices:
Take it to eleven. After reading a draft of what she calls “a basic competition play” where two characters want the same thing, Cabbage CRAZED, by Mark McDaniel, Jane asked, “On a scale of one to ten, can you turn this up to eleven?” Mark came back with a magic cabbage that eats people. Yup, for the 2014 Festival, ATL built a ten-foot tall, character-eating cabbage.
A play is not written, it is re-written. “Seeing that re-writing is an absolute necessity for the students has led me to be more generous with myself concerning revisions. It’s just part of the process.”
Remember who you’re writing for. In one residency, Jane didn’t get time to confer with a student about cutting what she perceived as a play’s second ending: a mother’s response to a child’s suicide. “When the play was read for an audience that included parents,” she remembers, “it was the mother’s response that blew their minds. So now I always ask, ‘Who’s the audience?’”
Jane reads all of the submissions, and ATL provides written feedback to every student who enters the New Voices contest. “It’s a clear way to see if the approach is working. And that causes me to examine my approach. I think about adjusting the way I work.” She concludes, “There’s a lot to be learned from the bravery of young playwrights.”
Jane recently completed her MFA in Playwriting at Spalding University in Louisville. Her plays include Dress Up which was produced as part of The Tens at ATL in 2012, and T.M.I., A Sex-Ed Puppet Show and Goodnight, Monster, both of which she wrote for Louisville’s Squallis Puppeteers.
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