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A Milestone for Young Playwrights Inc.

The program that Stephen Sondheim wrought 21 years ago is going stronger than ever. logo
In the top row: Young playwrights Ben Gottlieb,
Caroline V. McGraw, and Lauren Gunderson
Bottom row: Daniel St. Germain and Molly Lamberg
Happy 21st Birthday to Young Playwrights Inc, the artistic brainchild of Broadway's eminence grise, Stephen Sondheim. In 1977, as president of the Dramatists Guild, Sondheim adapted the YPI concept from a youth program he discovered at Britain's Royal Court. The question he asked at that time -- "Would American teenagers write for the stage?" -- has been answered with a resounding "Yes!" every year since.

The idea was, and is, to find and nurture young writers via a National Playwriting Competition and, ultimately, give their work first class productions and readings involving professional actors, directors, and dramaturgs. This year's selection committee boasts such illustrious members as Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, and David Henry Hwang; some major financial support came from Carol Burnett in memory of her actress-playwright daughter, Carrie Hamilton.

Over the last two decades, YPI has discovered and presented such promising young playwrights as Kenneth Lonergan (The Rennings Children in 1982), Rebecca Gilman (Always Open in 1984), and two-time winner Jonathan Marc Sherman (Serendipity and Serenity in 1987 and Women and Wallace in 1988). Sherman, who was 18 when Women and Wallace won and whose new play Evolution has just opened Off-Broadway, says: "The YPI opened my eyes to the fact that I could have a career as a playwright. Working with them was a definite calling card into the professional world of agents and 'the business,' and I got a lot of respect at a very early age."

The ripple effect of the YPI concept reaches far and wide, with 40-plus training programs across the country encouraging young people to try playwriting. For this year's anniversary, PBS's Theater Talk put together a two part series featuring a panel of playwrights including 2001 YPI winner Julia Jarcho plus David Lindsay-Abaire, Diana Son, Warren Leight, Theresa Rebeck, and Keith Glover (a participant in the first YPI Advanced Playwriting Workshop in 1982).

The 2002 festival -- September 26-October 26 -- offers three full productions, and TheaterMania recently sat down in the intimate Alternative Space of the landmark Cherry Lane Theatre with the three young women who are this year's mainstage winners: Caroline V. McGraw, author of Trade, about four college students trying to make it on their own; Molly Lambert, whose An Ice Cream Man for All Seasons is a comic treatise on "Zen and the art of ice cream vending"; and Lauren Gunderson, who possesses a cheery gravitas that illuminates Parts They Call Deep, her ironic work about mothers and grandmothers. The three shared their eager intelligence mixed and their opening night jitters.


THEATERMANIA: How long have you been writing, and did any of you actively intend to become playwrights before becoming involved with YPI?

CAROLINE MCGRAW: For me, writing has always been spontaneous. I started when I was five -- stories, poetry. My parents have such a love of the written word. I had plays read and staged in High School -- you know, bad imitations of great plays -- so I'd already been writing for 10 years when an English teacher of mine recommended me to the young playwrights program at the Cleveland Playhouse. I wound up in the top 25 of the 2000 season. It was my dad who found YPI on the internet.

MOLLY LAMBERT: I've been writing plays all along. In the 10th grade, I was in the California Young Playwrights Festival at the Old Globe in San Diego and I had a full-length winner when I was 15. Then, in 12th grade, I won another California competition; I wrote An Ice Cream Man... in the 12th grade. I wanted to act as well, but I discovered there are always 60 girls up for six parts and 12 guys for 60 parts!

LAUREN GUNDERSON: I agree. I started acting and [I found that] there were very few serious parts for girls or young women. I didn't want to be treated as some Annie understudy! I went to such a tiny school that I was the theater department. After I saw Wit, I wrote a note to Margaret Edson [the play's author] -- who's since become a good friend -- and she said, "You sound like a writer, you should write." So I did! I was also part of the New American Theatre Festival for Georgia Writers. For me, writing has always been an exploration.

TM: Who are your personal favorite playwrights?

CM: Definitely Caryl Churchill, Kenneth Lonergan, Neil LaBute, and Tom Stoppard.

LG: Of course, Tom Stoppard, but also Lee Blessing, Margaret Edson, and Aaron Sorkin -- I just love The West Wing.

ML: I've got to throw in a couple of screenwriters -- Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Wes Anderson -- along with Thornton Wilder, David Lindsay-Abaire, and David Ives.

TM: Not to pigeonhole anyone, but how would you describe your writing?

ML: I write comedy almost entirely, so for me the feedback is instantaneous: whether they laugh or not. I went to a highly competitive prep school -- very much a boys' club -- and, sometimes, I get angry with myself for not writing more female-centric stuff, but I tend to work from a genderless perspective. [Ice Cream Man is about two guys.] I don't think theater should be pretentious and I'm not fond of experimental theater; I think it's a bit like pornography -- I know it when I see it. Picasso was traditional until he mastered it all, and I think there should be no experimental theater until you know you can write.

Writer John Weidman with young playwrights
at YPI's 2001 Urban Retreat
LG: I'm particularly interested in big ideas, big metaphors, and the people inside them -- putting a person you've seen in a new situation. And I'm very science-based. I love doing research and then realizing the dramatic connections. I like to think my writing isn't just real, it's hyper-real. Our generational stuff is not just about MTV-land, and we should take and twist and turn it in our work.

CM: People always say [about playwriting], "Oh, it's all been done before." But, for me, theater's always been writing about people -- even for the ancient Greeks. It's a way of reflecting what's important. It blows my mind to see how many plays have already been written and how many of them still matter. At last night's run-through, I realized, "I worked on Trade for two years and this is it -- from my brain to the stage!"


[For more information on this year's Young Playwright's Festival, click here.]


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