Last Saturday, May 6th, Geva’s Literary Department hosted the annual Young Writers Showcase on the Fielding Stage. This year’s event featured six student playwrights, all selected from an open submission pool of local students. The competition, produced by Geva’s New Plays Coordinator, Jean Gordon Ryon, is open to Rochester writers ages 13-18, and the winners have a chance to hear their short plays in semi-staged readings by a professional team of actors and directors. These six plays will also receive further rehearsal and script development support over the summer and into the fall, in preparation for fully-realized productions of each of the plays in Geva’s Festival of New Theatre (FONT) this October 23-November 5, 2017.
This year’s selected plays were:
I Knew Him, by Campbell McDade Clay (senior, Brighton High School)
Anxiety, by Maggie Hurley (junior, Bishop Kearney High School)
Pure Imagination, by Blake Lombardo (sophomore, Wayne Central High School)
Bad Beans, by Alaina Messineo (senior, Webster Schroeder High School)
Break-Up Song, by Brennan Saur (junior, Victor Senior High School)
The Science of Acceptance, by Isabella (Bella) Watts (junior, School of the Arts)
Half of the Young Writers Showcase plays were directed by Jean Gordon Ryon, and the other half by Lindsay Warren Baker. Jean and Lindsay had a marathon rehearsal process the morning before the showcase: Each 10-minute play had about an hour to rehearse, and Jean and Lindsay switched between rehearsal spaces in Geva to stage separate plays simultaneously. Geva also employed a company of actors cast in multiple plays (featuring Jodi Beckwith, Tessa Galovski, Seth Hatch, Linda Loy, Greg Ludek, Susan Milner, Ged Owen, Sean Michael Smith, and Sam Spadafore), so our team had to carefully coordinate which casts could rehearse simultaneously without requiring an actor to be in two rehearsals at once. After the company ran between back-to-back rehearsals for an entire morning and programmed a few quick lighting cues, the writers’ friends and families began streaming into the Fielding for the showcase that afternoon.
The young writers were present for both the rehearsals and performances of their plays, and got a glimpse at what it’s like to present a new play with a team of theatre professionals. While our young writers came from all different backgrounds and different levels of experience with playwriting, each had something to learn from participating in the showcase:
For those who were more experienced at writing plays, working with Geva’s directors and actors helped them refine how they expressed their visions. For example, Campbell McDade Clay, who has written plays for Brighton High School’s 24-hour play festivals, learned a lot about how to clarify the world of her play: Regarding a classroom counseling scene, the actors asked Campbell a series of questions about their situation, why this particular group of students was in the scene together, and what relationships they had with each other. This conversation made Campbell realize that the scene, based on regularly-scheduled student counseling groups at Brighton High School, needed some clarification for actors who did not have the same high school experience. Campbell discovered, “I totally would not have considered that anyone outside my school wouldn’t get that. But it made me realize that as a writer, you fill in the blanks in your own mind without realizing you haven’t done it on the page, until you have the actors pose these questions to you.” Campbell hopes to carry this lesson with her and continue writing in some capacity when she begins her musical theatre studies at American University this fall.
Alaina Messineo, who will be studying playwriting and drama therapy at Marymount Manhattan next year, said the Young Writers Showcase gave her a taste of the kind of work she’ll be completing in her playwriting studies. In addition, “I definitely learned to keep my stage notes a little bit shorter. I also learned a lot just from watching the director [Lindsay Warren Baker] working, about how to direct and how to give some background information to help the actors onstage adapt and fit to their characters.”
Third-time Young Writers Showcase participant Brennan Saur came into the process ready to discover new elements of his story upon hearing his play aloud: “You can read plays, but they’re really meant to be performed. And even then, when you hear them performed, you may find something different that you didn’t know about the play.” In this case, watching the cast perform in Break-Up Song, Brennan said, “I found characterizations and character traits that I hadn’t thought of before.”
In contrast, other writers said that seeing their plays interpreted by a professional team confirmed that their visions are coming across on the page exactly as they intended: Alaina was thrilled with the result, saying, “It was crazy getting to see the stories in my head coming to life onstage, and it was crazy that almost all the characters were exactly how I pictured them.” Bella Watts had a similar experience, though she expects she’ll have more time to learn about her play and all its possibilities as she continues to develop the piece for FONT: “I love what the actors did with the play, and they ended up doing kind of exactly how I pictured it, and it was really cool to see that. I feel like as we go on I’ll learn more about the entire process; [today’s hour-long rehearsal process] was kind of a little speedy. But I’m really excited to see what happens with the production.”
For some participants, the biggest take-away from the Young Writers Showcase was the chance to discover their own interest and talent in playwriting: For example, though Bella Watts is no stranger to writing comedies and fiction prose, as a Creative Writing major at the School of the Arts, The Science of Acceptance was her first attempt at a dramatic play.
Blake Lombardo has been primarily focusing on poetry and fiction, and hopes to publish a book of his poems called The Colors of the World. When a friend told him about the Young Writers Showcase a few days before the submission due date, Blake decided to try his hand at playwriting. One can imagine Blake’s delighted surprise when he heard his first play was a finalist in the Young Writers Showcase (especially considering he got the good news on his birthday!). He discovered that he enjoyed writing Pure Imagination, and was excited to observe rehearsals and learn more about the theatre-making process during his time at Geva. Blake will likely continue exploring playwriting alongside his poetry.
Some of the lessons learned at the Young Writers Showcase went beyond the mechanics of playwriting, as students discovered theatre’s unique ability to bring people together through shared experiences: Maggie Hurley wrote Anxiety in response to her past experiences being nervous before asking a teacher for help. In the play, her protagonist imagines all the possible horrible iterations of how her teacher might respond to the request. During rehearsal, Maggie was pleasantly surprised to discover that many other members of her creative team have gone through very similar situations. She told me, “I’m in awe that somebody has felt the same way as I felt. I’ve never really talked about this with other people before, so hearing people respond to the play saying, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of a normal thing to feel nervous before talking to people,’ that was nice to hear.” Simply by telling her own authentic story, Maggie had revealed something about the human condition through her writing that brought the team around the play together in a common understanding. This is the very quality that makes theatre special as a communal experience; what a powerful lesson for a young person discovering self-expression through the arts to learn.
At the conclusion of the Young Writers Showcase presentation, Jean awarded each writer a certificate and a book of essays on the art of playwriting, to encourage the winners to continue developing their craft. The Fielding continued to buzz with excitement and pride following the showcase, as the audience and participants celebrated with a cookie buffet while praising the writers’ achievements. We’re excited to see where our young writers go from here, and are looking forward to seeing the fully-produced versions of these award-worthy plays in FONT this fall!