Every Wednesday, a group of playwrights meets in a little room just a block away from the blazing lights of Times Square. They do writing exercises and talk about their approach to their work; they also make a point of seeing a show together and then discussing it at the following week's meeting. This proves to be a great springboard for conversation on the nature of drama, what makes a play work, etc.
There are, of course, many playwriting groups to be found all over New York City; what makes this one unique is that its members are all under the age of 18. They are New York City high school students in the Advanced Playwriting Workshop, an intensive year-long class conducted by Brett Reynolds, managing director of Young Playwrights, Inc.
YPI is dedicated to developing the next wave of American dramatists. The organization has been serving this function for 20 years now, and there's no doubt that it has been successful: Over 40,000 students nationwide have participated in its playwriting classes, over 18,000 in its National Playwriting Competition. More than 300 writers have had readings and productions of their plays courtesy of YPI, and many of them have seen subsequent work commissioned, produced, and published. Two early alumni of the National Playwriting Competition, Rebecca Gilman and Kenneth Lonergan, had critically acclaimed plays Off-Broadway last year and are currently represented in New York by Boy Gets Girl and Lobby Hero.
YPI was founded in 1981--oddly enough, not by a playwright. It was the legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim who wanted to create an American festival of plays by young authors after seeing just such an event in London. This notion blossomed into a non-profit organization that encourages and educates grade-school and high-school age writers in dramatic writing through a variety of programs and events. Yearly, a nationwide competition is held and the winners are brought to New York to see their plays given professionally staged readings during the Writers Conference; they participate in workshops and classes, and they get a chance to work with some of the theater's best. Later each year, four plays are chosen to receive actual productions at an Off-Broadway theater during the Young Playwrights Festival.
Then there are the year-round initiatives. YPI sends teachers into classrooms around the country to work with students. And the Advanced Playwriting Workshop (APW) described above brings dedicated and talented high-school age writers together to write about, talk about, and experience drama.
In a way, the APW encapsulates what Young Playwrights, Inc. is all about: nurturing young talent through education and experience. By seeing a variety of shows on a weekly basis, the participants get a broad view of the current theatrical landscape, and talkbacks with the creators of these shows allow the fledgling playwrights to interact with and learn directly from professionals. Reynolds, who has designed the WRITING ON YOUR FEET! Playwriting Curriculum used in the APW and the other workshops and classes offered by YPI, prompts the students to apply what they're learning to their own work through exercises. These assignments are wide-ranging and cover every aspect of dramatic writing imaginable. Some are relatively simple ("How does the writing style of a play inform the style of its production and performance?"), while others are a little more elaborate ("Write a three-scene musical"). This is the starting point for the students, each of whom must begin work on a new play in the class.
If any of the students participating in YPI's many programs wind up winners of the National Playwriting Competition, and they often do, that is icing on the cake. What YPI is about first and foremost is supporting these young writers as they embark upon their careers. But the Festival affords many of them the opportunity to take their first steps into that final, fascinating stage: production.
Through all of these initiatives, Young Playwrights, Inc. gives a leg up to kids whose gifts might have otherwise gone untapped. After all, in an age when teachers across the country are struggling to educate students about everything from sex to the internet (not to mention the nearly neglected 'three Rs'), who has time to teach playwriting? The APW is competitive but, if you've got the stuff it takes to get in, you get to spend a year seeing shows and learning the ropes for free. And those students who win the national competition receive an expenses-paid trip to NYC to see their work produced.
In a recent meeting, the Selection Committee--including such theater luminaries as David Henry Hwang and Lynn Ahrens--met to decide the winners of this year's Young Playwrights Festival National Playwriting Competition. After several hours of lively discussion about the merits of the various plays that had made it to the finals stage, they chose the following:
Eva Anderson, From the Mouths of Babes
Julia Belozersky, Air Blooming with Paper Bags
Adam BlaiR, Dancing in the Snow
Yelena Elkind, The Cultural Headstand and Johnny Likaboot Kills His Father!
Lucy Harrison, Gorgeous Raptors
Julia Jarcho, Nursery
Melissa Maehara, Seven of Hearts
Kyle McCarthy, Store
Robert Rath, Spiffy
Willa Rohrer, Escape From the McCallum St. Bridge
Remember these names. In a few years, you may be seeing some or all of them in lights.
[To find out more about Young Playwrights, Inc., click here to visit the organization's website.]